Tom Wolfe, pioneering 'New Journalist,' dead at 88

Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wizard of “New Journalism” who exuberantly chronicled American culture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race before turning his satiric wit to such novels as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full,” has died. He was 88.

Wolfe’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, told The Associated Press that he died of an infection Monday in a New York City hospital. Further details were not immediately available.

An acolyte of French novelist Emile Zola and other authors of “realistic” fiction, the stylishly-attired Wolfe was an American maverick who insisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.

His hyperbolic, stylized writing work was a gleeful fusillade of exclamation points, italics and improbable words. An ingenious phrase maker, he helped brand such expressions as “radical chic” for rich liberals’ fascination with revolutionaries; and the “Me” generation, defining the self-absorbed baby boomers of the 1970s.

“He was an incredible writer,” Talese told the AP on Tuesday. “And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried it was a disaster. They should have gotten a job at a butcher’s shop.”

Wolfe was both a literary upstart, sneering at the perceived stuffiness of the publishing establishment, and an old-school gentleman who went to the best schools and encouraged Michael Lewis and other younger writers. When attending promotional luncheons with fellow authors, he would make a point of reading their latest work.

“What I hope people know about him is that he was a sweet and generous man,” Lewis, known for such books as “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” told the AP in an email Tuesday. “Not just a great writer but a great soul. He didn’t just help me to become a writer. He did it with pleasure.”

Wolfe scorned the reluctance of American writers to confront social issues and warned that self-absorption and master’s programs would kill the novel. “So the doors close and the walls go up!” he wrote in his 1989 literary manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” He was astonished that no author of his generation had written a sweeping, 19th century style novel about contemporary New York City, and ended up writing one himself, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job and endured for decades.

“Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’”

Wolfe’s interests were vast, but his narratives had a common theme. Whether sending up the New York art world or hanging out with acid heads, Wolfe inevitably presented man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of one’s peers. Wolfe himself dressed for company — his trademark a pale three-piece suit, impossibly high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie. And he acknowledged that he cared — very much — about his reputation.

“My contention is that status is on everybody’s mind all of the time, whether they’re conscious of it or not,” Wolfe, who lived in a 12-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told the AP in 2012.

In 1978, Wolfe married Sheila Berger, art director of Harper’s magazine. They had two children, Alexandra and Tommy.

He enjoyed the highest commercial and critical rewards. His literary honors included the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award) for “The Right Stuff” and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle prize for “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” one of the top 10 selling books of the 1980s. Its 1998 follow-up, “A Man in Full,” was another best-seller and a National Book Award nominee. Wolfe satirized college misbehavior in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” and was still at it in his 80s with “Back to Blood,” a sprawling, multicultural story of sex and honor set in Miami.

A panel of judges organized in 1999 by the Modern Library, a Random House imprint, picked “The Right Stuff” as No. 52 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction. Another panel of experts, listing the best journalism of the century, cited Wolfe three times on its list of 100, for “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” ?The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” and “The Right Stuff.”