His voice was unique, a one-off as individual as his trademark white custom suits.
His politics and hangups, however, could be as run-of-the-mill and factory-manufactured as the shock his words so often expressed.
That was what I thought I would conclude this obituary with, a burial after faint praise. That was what I thought, before I recalled what The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meant to me.
Thinking of the latter still reminds me of that wonderful after-ski ache as I found Wolfe’s account of his time with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the shelf, a literary glow as warming in its gusto for satire as the fireplace, buttered rum and anticipation of a satisfying meal. Wolfe’s unanticipated voice of novelistic reporting was more modulated than that of Hunter S. Thompson, less self-serving than those of Dominick Dunne or Truman Capote, all fellow practitioners of New Journalism mentioned in the same sentences, if not breaths, as Wolfe. Clearly the Merry Pranksters were facing down a chronicler as merrily, playfully destructive (or deconstructive) as they were.
And Bonfire. I’ve written elsewhere about how it introduced me to my favorite drink, the Sidecar, and to certain Jermyn Street names now definitely on the wane. I read and reread the book, not only for those references but to try to make sense of the vast, levelling world that was the New York he conjured up in his first (quasi-journalistic) novel. Wolfe’s literary idols may have included Balzac, but the appetites, delusions and humiliations he conjures were gargantuan, positively Rabelaisian. Fitting for the excesses of the 1980s, fitting for the overreaching greed, status-seeking and extramarital lust that brings two of Bonfire’s three main characters down. As consumed as Wolfe might have been with class, according to some critics, he created a New York that itself was the great inexorable leveler, that forced its inhabitants to shed their dress shoes and nice suits and tear off great slices of life with their teeth in order to survive, a capital of capitalism in fatal, self-defeating, self-consuming contagion.
Over the years and through repeated cycles of financial boom and collapse I’ve often thought of Wolfe’s gleeful, scornful observation that the mid-80s New York financiers of Bonfire were picking the last bits of meat off the bones of capitalism. Decades later, now that there is no more meat, we have boiled the bones to make, not stock, but synthetic debt obligations. God help us. And that was only one observation out of the glorious, unceasing torrent that poured off the page, so many impressions and reactions to absorb that it’s only now I realize the genius of forcing us to make sense, across so so much, of what was a senseless time.
Even though his voice, that directed mocking, shocked, polemical voice, influenced my writing more than I can admit. I used to mock Wolfe for looking like Baron Samedi in his signature white suit and shoes. Just because he obviously cared about clothes does not mean that he was elegant. He was no brand whore, remaining loyal to one of the great unsung New York tailors, Vincent Nicolosi, rather than a famous British or Italian house. What humanized him, latterly, to me, was learning Wolfe’s outfit was not born out of some creepy allegiance to a stultified, stunted old class, but was a protective professional uniform. Because it fit in nowhere, it allowed him to penetrate whatever milieu he was observing, from the country clubs of know-nothing WASPs to the campus bacchanalia of in I am Charlotte Simmons.
It was Charlotte Simmons that crystallized my concerns with Wolfe, his veer from skewering well-meaning modern permissiveness, liberal guilt and left-wing demagogues and political trendiness, all of which may deserve it, to what seemed like carefully distilled shock at what these privileged and naïve young people are up to in their colleges in between indoctrination sessions. A polemic too easily flowing into the current attacks on higher learning as a whole, adding in its own small, single-batch way to the torrent of anti-intellectualism that is poisoning American democracy.
But Wolfe’s outfit as essential survival gear I can identify with, less disguise than a sort of protective armor for extremophile situations: clothing not as a sign of belonging but as an impervious safe-conduct for a foreign body. For Wolfe, it meant that the obvious outsider was the most unthreatening of observers. He wisely pointed out that “there’s no use trying to blend in” and perhaps those up for the most comeuppance (apart from poor Henry Lamb) in his novels are those who try. It’s OK to stand out. In embracing your own distinction, you become distinctive.