The Man from Mars

My entire career, in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me.

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One of the very best things about Tom Wolfe is that he did not write stories about Tom Wolfe. He could have. He  was certainly an interesting enough character and, as any portrait of the man, in photograph or print, will testify, he seemed to like himself very much.

But he avoided the navel-gazing fictionalized autobiography that dominated literary fiction of his era and turned his bemused, self-satisfied gaze out on America. He helped to invent something called New Journalism, which, as far as I can tell, means hanging out with people until they do something interesting. He was good at that.

He didn’t blend in, though. He realized early on that if you’re trying to blend in at say, a Nascar event, you have to pretend to know what’s going on and you couldn’t ask the dumb questions that needed asking. So he’d show up at the Nascar event in his suit and ask, “What’s an overhead cam?”

I’ve just arrived from Mars, I have no idea what you’re doing, but I’m very interested.

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To pull it off, you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches … long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives

And so he hung out. With hippies  and test pilots and real estate developers and artists and, in the early 2000s, college kids. Imagine you’re a student at Michigan State or Duke or North Carolina and a guy in his 70s shows up wearing a white suit with pocket handkerchief, carrying a dandyish cane. He asks you about your personal life and asks to hang out. What would you tell him? What would you show him?

What Wolfe found was what he always found. The truth. The resulting novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, told the truth about college life in the early 2000s, and, to a great extent, about college life in 2018. The fact that no one has yet made the connection between Charlotte Simmons and #metoo is stunning.

And when I say that no one has made this connection, I mean no one. A few hours ago I Googled the terms “I Am Charlotte Simmons” and “#metoo” and came up with nothing. You can do a search for any two random phrases in the world and find something that connects them on the internet, but, until right now–this very blog post–no one has seen fit to mention a New York Times Bestseller that deals extensively with sex and consent on American college campuses and the Me Too movement. Perhaps this is because Wolfe’s portrayal suggests some truths about sex that don’t fit neatly into the preferred narrative.

But, he was right. He was almost always right.

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He was right about the destructive politics of modern art. He was right about the inhumaneness of modern architecture. He was right about the deterministic trajectory of the New Atheists. He was mostly wrong about evolution, but he was wrong in an interesting way.

Wolfe’s obituaries celebrate his knack for tapping into the zeitgeist of the eras in which he lived–he coined both the Me Generation and radical chic–but they don’t mention his considerable skill as prognosticator. He predicted, for example, our growing appetite for consuming the shenanigans of the amoral rich. He even attempted to invent a term for it: if plutography–a  portmanteau of plutocrat and pornography–doesn’t describe our appetite for trash like Real Housewises and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I don’t know what does.

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He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else. – William F. Buckley

Part of Tom Wolfe’s legacy is that he invented a new form of journalism with an article called “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” for Esquire in 1963. He was working to a tight deadline, so the legend says, and instead of turning in a finished article, he sent his editor his unpolished notes and, ta-da, New Journalism was born.

It’s not true, but journalists all over the country are printing the legend as fact today. He nurtured that legend for most of his life, but, as he admitted in his declining years, he crafted the Kandy-Kolored Tangering-Flake Streamline Baby with a great deal of care, modelling it after the writing of Gay Talese and Truman Capote.

As I mentioned earlier, Tom Wolfe was a great fan of Tom Wolfe, and he was not above crass self-promotion. He did not invent New Journalism, but he was its most enthusiastic promoter and, arguably, its greatest practitioner. He crafted his own legend and guarded his reputation with distasteful venom.

But when it came to the stories themselves, he stayed in the background. One of the very best things about Tom Wolfe is that he did not write stories about Tom Wolfe.