Tom Wolfe Captured American Life from the Center of the Carnival and We’re All Better Because of It

The USA lost an icon today.

Tom Wolfe wrote the pants off of every subject he touched, and he will be missed.

But that’s what writing is for, right? He is gone, but his work remains.

The author Tom Wolfe and his typewriters
Tom Wolfe

I devoured as much of his writing as I could when I was studying for my B.A. degree. What I got in return wasn’t just a lesson in style or syntax, but a portrait of American history that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. From NASA to Nascar, Ken Kesey’s quest for the far-out and Charlotte Simmons’ prelude to #MeToo, Wolfe seemed to have a line on everything that happened in the half-century he spent writing.

I hope that my generation can come up with a Wolfe of its own – someone who will thread the needle between all the cultural movements happening right now, and instead of illustrating only the divisions, find something relatable in all of it.

I’m going to share a paper I wrote in college (almost 10 years ago!?!) that reviewed his work – specifically, four books – The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s a long-ish paper, as compared to most of my blog posts, but praise is due.

So, in memory of Tom Wolfe, here’s my Dec. 2008 essay:

Tom Wolfe:  Exploring style, from Junior Johnson to JoJo Johanssen

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby

In Wolfe’s style of writing, the ‘New Journalism’, specifically in the Tangerine-Flake, he places himself dead center in the middle of whatever story is going on, and writes himself as the protagonist, affected by the American carnival swirling around him.  He writes what he hears with little filtration, turning dialogue into a context from which to evaluate the whole situation.  I think what New Journalism intended to do was disrupt the style of convention, assume a highly intelligent person was the audience, and also find evidence of a new culture growing in the US. 

The New Journalism was also an attempt to fuse imaginative storytelling with factual reporting.  Wolfe’s style wanders through made-up phrases – “Hemingway or a lot of other goddamn-and-hungry-breast writers,” “the Barbasol Sound,” and “Williams College boys,” obscure references – “Brancusi,” and “Dionysian,” and pop-culture name dropping – Cassius Clay, Cary Grant, the Avanti Studebaker.  Some of the metaphors have lost their point of reference in later decades, but still intrigue the reader. 

The stories contained in the collection are divided into sections; The New Culture Makers, Heroes and Celebrities, Status Strife and the High Life, and Love and Hate New York Style.  Wolfe covers a wide array of American issues and whims, in the New Culture Makers section, he chronicles the invention of the automobile demolition derby, which he describes as a replacement for the “purest of all sports, gladiatorial combat,” and the celebrity-by-association of chatterbox DJ Murray the K in The Fifth Beatle.  The section Status Strife and the High Life finds Wolfe dramatizing the glitterati socialites of New York, as in The Secret Vice where he brings out a topic later explored in Charlotte Simmons; the rules, laws, and punishments of following or ignoring fashion.       

Wolfe, like E.B. White, plays on the division between urban and rural social culture.  The Marvelous Mouth, an article about Cassius Clay, and The Last American Hero, profile of stock-car legend Junior Johnson, are the best examples of this outlook.  Strangely both the men came out of the country, but Clay found his fame under the lights of Times Square and Johnson found his on the dirt tracks of Hickory, N.C.  I think Wolfe is entertained by the outcomes of the two different lives – both coming from the country, both superstars in their own right, yet undeniably distinct from each other.  Wolfe’s perspective is through the ‘American Dream’ lens, where he sees everybody getting a shot to do whatever they want, and he seems fascinated very much by the fantastic, strange, and different desires that the American people can come up with. 

Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake is the most complex of the stories, deeply investigating what on the surface would be a trifle to “the charming Aristocracy” (another Wolfeism).  Yet his look into the American sub-culture reveals points about society otherwise unnoticed.  This particular story is character driven, by the personalities of the car sculptors whom Wolfe elevates to the level of high artists.  The car culture seems parallel to the curious architectural wonders of Las Vegas, also investigated in this book.  Tom Wolfe seems to walk the line between sarcasm and reverence as he describes the peculiarities of American culture, but as he plunges deeper into the scenes that unfold around him, I think it becomes clear that he is by all accounts amazed at American ingenuity. 

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

A few years after publishing the collection of articles in Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe branches out in the Acid Test to explore new journalism in the form of a non-fiction novel, a true-life narrative, a stylish “out-front” LSD bonanza, centered on the ideas and culture surrounding Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters.  The Acid Test set the standard for Wolfe in later years as the model of non-fiction narrative he would become enormously gifted in producing. 

Structurally, the work is a fairly chronological record of Kesey’s antics, following his life after the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, through his Day-Glo bus trips across the country, to his hiatus in Mexico and his eventual arrest for drug possession.    

It is in Acid Test that Wolfe’s style – out there! – begins to shape as clearly unique and distinct from regular feature – …words… – writing that he had done for Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune.  His dedication to dialogue is profound in the scenes of drug frenzy, and the slang and rhetoric of tripping and haw-hawing, the Fantasy and ….right now…. are at the core of the book; dialogue slithers into descriptions, metaphors, scene-setting, and even punctuation, overtaking the typical modes of language for narrative storytelling.      

As a whole, the scope of Acid Test doesn’t reach as far as Tangerine-Flake, covering fewer nooks and crannies of Americana, focusing instead on a broken-off segment of popular-culture-makers and following them to the top of their highs and the limit of their escapes; but it does focus on one topic in a detail unforeseen in the Tangerine-Flake.  Occasionally an anecdotal reference to society-at-large is made, such as in the description of the many “Beautiful-people letters” scooting across the country (written by run-aways and drop outs to their mothers) to explain they had (quit school, or quit a job, or broken up with Danny) and found “a really beautiful … scene… ” in (Los Angeles, A Hopi Indian Reservation!!!, New York, or Mazatlan).

By avoiding long forays into What It All Means, Wolfe is able to portray Kesey and his cohorts as the pinnacle of 1960’s counterculture, assuming any story that wasn’t related to the Prankster’s wasn’t worth mentioning in his discussion of counterculture, because they were Right There, Berkeley, and ….it’s all Happening…  Other icons of hippiedom and Righteousness make cameo appearances, Larry McMurtry riding along, the Grateful Dead rapping out vibrations, the Hell’s Angels, Timothy Leary.  Wolfe tries to verbalize the unspoken religiosity of the group by exposing their philosophical interpretations of the mundane, and their reverent attitude toward the nominal. 

The search by Kesey, an already successful artist, for methods of introspection and creativity through drug use (expanding consciousness) prevails as the most important aspect of the book; Kesey’s story is an important document in the history of literature-makers, a nude snapshot of the real sources of inspiration and failure by a young writer, and the detrimental effects of drug culture on citizenship and artistry. 

The Right Stuff

Almost a decade after his foray into the hippie drug culture of Acid Test, Wolfe refocused his eye on the pilots of the Navy, Air Force, and NASA in The Right Stuff.  Once again, Wolfe’s characters are getting high.  Unlike Kesey, however, who reaches his altitude from uncontrolled substances, Chuck Yeager is getting high by climbing 20,000 feet in the air in a Navy fighter jet or a rocket-propelled space craft.

Instead of abstract ideas, desperately far from being . . .put into words. . . the characters in The Right Stuff deal with metrics, distance, weight, thrust, oxygen, life, and death without nonsense.  The contrast between the two books is interesting; compare Kesey and the Pranksters understanding of the beyond:

Where does it go?  I don’t think man has ever been there.  We’re under cosmic control and have been for a long long time, and each time it builds, it’s bigger, and it’s stronger.  And then you find out . . . about Cosmo, and you discover that he’s running the show . . .

And the NASA interpretation of what’s Out There:

Bob White had flown to 314,750 feet, or 59.6 miles, 9.6 miles into space (50 miles was now officially regarded as the boundary line) and well above the project’s goal of 280,000 feet.”

The complete shift in culture that Wolfe has chosen to focus on is drastic between the two books.  The Right Stuff is a non-fiction novel, like Acid, but reaches beyond the superficial, the popular, and the …right now… to bring to vivid life a highly technical, often shrouded world of engineers, war fighters, and new-frontiersmen.  The writing has more punch than Acid Test, cutting back on pop-culture references, although a few remain (who is Barbara Stanwyck, and what is the Halusian Gulp?) and adding a satisfying amount of scientific detail (facts!), embedded in the customary style of Free-Flowing Capitalization for Important Phrases. 

Interestingly the story of Chuck Yeager and other young aces who “have it” recalls Wolfe’s portrayal of Junior Johnson in his article The Last American Hero.  Yeager and Johnson, both brung-up in ole’ Appalachia, the hollows, where they have to “pipe sunlight in,” both wanting nothing more than to Go Fast, to Push It, to spit back at The Man, are cut from the same cloth, and you get the feeling Wolfe sought this story out to expand on what he started in his article on Johnson. 

The main point of separation between Right Stuff and Acid Test is the scope of the story and the story’s total social importance.  While Kesey and his clowns was a fun bunch to ride along with, and truly represented a search for some kind of knowledge …whatever it  is… Wolfe clarifies through telling the story of Right Stuff that they hardly exceeded the boundaries of human history in the way NASA did when it breached the earth’s atmosphere.  Wolfe had an objective with The Right Stuff, to harvest the …something… that made men ignore fear, and to lay it out on the examination table.  The pilots of the Korean War, the writing of St. Exupery, F-10s, X-15s, and Mach 1, the Sputnik; all these pieces of the puzzle of courage and achievement, stretch far beyond the reach of Acid Test and its dinky tale of a writer and his chemically-induced buddies tumbling through farm houses and garage parties in search of a comfortable chair, or a synchronous tune, or a brightly dyed feather. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons

This work of fiction by Wolfe is far removed from what he has previously written in his novels, leaving behind the middle-aged men of A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities, and letting his imagination loose in the post-millennial university community of America.  Wolfe received some criticism for trying to understand the minds of book-dropping bar-hopping college students; as well as praise, which lauded his attempt at dissecting the athletics, sexuality, politics, and academic standards of the modern American college. 

Again in Charlotte Simmons, we see Wolfe fixating on that corridor of America known as the High Country, the Appalachians, where Charlotte was brung-up, “piping sunlight in,” where fireball is pronounced “farball,” among Christmas tree farms, a wooden bench in the living room and rusty truck in the gravel driveway.  The location doesn’t serve as the primary setting for the story, which is actually a fictional north-eastern Ivy League university, but as the place where the main character’s persona developed and shaped her understanding of the world.  The “back country” isn’t a theme or category Wolfe has explicitly come out and declared his target.  But his repeated returns to strong-hearted (I AM! Charlotte….) characters that floated off the hilltops and into the world is a motif worthy of discussion.  And like Chuck Yeager and Junior Johnson, who shot down 4 Germans in a single day, who took a rocket out of the atmosphere, who ran whiskey past Johnny Law, who sped stock cars through U-Turns; Charlotte Simmons defies …The Others… when she moves into an Ivy League dormitory with just a single – only one! – outfit to wear, when she gets a D (what is she gonna tell Momma?) on her report card. 

While his style of 4 decades past is intact, replete with parenthesis, ellipses, capitalized nouns, and dialogue-through-monologue, and despite the connection to Appalachian heroism; the characters and world of Charlotte Simmons are still a fairly new territory for the author.  Wolfe has explored teenage culture in his early 60’s essays The Peppermint Lounge Revisited, and in the Tangerine-Flake, and even in the almost-youth culture of Acid Test, but his investigations didn’t even scratch the surface of the deep probing in Charlotte Simmons.  Some of the main points of his early essays are revisited, and Charlotte’s persona seems to serve as a mouthpiece for Wolfe’s perceived regression of culture since those earlier decades.  For example, in Peppermint Lounge as Wolfe examines the dancing style native to early 1960’s teenage Jersey weekenders visiting a New York City club, he describes: 

Curiously, they were like the dances at a Lebanese maharajan.  There was a lot of hip movement, but the boy and girl never touched.  There would be the Jersey Teen-agers, every weekend, doing the Mashed Potatoes, the Puppet and the Twist, studying each other’s legs and feet through the entire number, never smiling, serious as always about form.”

And 40-odd years later, Charlotte Simmons is appalled by the modern standard of college students dancing at a nightclub: 

“…they were joined at the pelvis.  Their pelvic saddles bucked and reared in slices but never parted.  Her jeans were so low-cut that when she torqued far enough, you got a flash of the top of the cleft of her slick, sweating buttocks….Charlotte’s eyes adjusted to the phenomenon….there were couples everywhere on the floor, dancing that way, locked mons pubis to mons pubis.  She couldn’t believe her eyes!  They were simulating….Intercourse!”

It’s hard to imagine that Wolfe isn’t speaking his own mind through Charlotte in this passage, revealing his shock at the modern-millennial-teenager and her rap music and gyrating mons pubis, and in other parts of the heavy novel where he takes on the promiscuity of athletes (towering basketball star JoJo Johanssen, whose role reversal eventually wins him Charlotte’s heart), the academic apathy of fraternities (rich boys who spend study hours watching ESPN and using books for beer coasters), and the moral deficiency of politicians (the governor of California who is caught receiving oral sex from an undergraduate in public). 

Like the Acid Test before it, Charlotte is held up by its dialogue, moving the understanding of characters through their vocabulary, phrasing, timing, and repetitive slang.  What makes this book remarkable is Wolfe’s accurate ear for speech – he nails the MTV generation’s vulgarisms cold – and he manages to tell an entertaining story in the process, albeit a shade of unbelievable.  Precisely representing the slang of the 1960’s and the 2000’s in one lifetime is a mountain of an achievement, and an effort reserved for only the finest writers of a century. 


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