The police reporter at the garden party

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FLAUBERT would love this guy. Even with the screaming Notice Me! white suit, there's still the wife and two kids, the East Side Manhattan town house, the polished politesse. Talk about a bourgeois life. And then there is the work, which from the get-go is as original as any in the past two decades. Just take the titles: ``The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby''; ``Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers''; ``The Right Stuff.''

Yeah, Tom Wolfe is Flaubert's kind of writer, one who cottons to the creed of that 19th-century French novelist: Live life for art's sake.

And Mr. Wolfe did just that: the ordinary beat reporter who jammed novelistic techniques into the ``pale beige tone'' of conventional journalism, turning an entire genre on its ear 25 years ago; and who, having now written The Big First Novel that has critics aflutter, remains a quintessential Southern gentleman who happens to sport spats - spats of his own design.

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``I call them my faux spats,'' says Wolfe, peering past his knees clad in perfectly tailored gabardine (white, of course) to let his gaze rest on his equally perfect two-tone shoes. ``Real spats are OK. But they're too hot. They really make your ankles hot. So I designed these.''

This is some verisimilitude from the author who insisted that a writer's only moral duty is to record ``the right details''; that the writer's one true subject is ``status''; and who has spent his career chronicling cultural revolutions through recorded minutiae.

Such was the crux of the New Journalism of which Wolfe was a chief pioneer back in the '60s, when the then Brat Pack of American Letters - Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, and the like - changed the face of nonfiction. Such is the crux of Wolfe's first fiction, ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' - a modern-day remake of the 19th-century novel of manners that is meant to do for today's New York what Thackeray's ``Vanity Fair'' did for pre-Victorian London.

In short, a satirical skewering of society's mores.

In other words, the same old Wolfe is at the door.

And here in his hotel suite during a recent interview, Wolfe is that same Dixie-accented, double-breasted dandy. He resembles a TV test pattern at the neck and ankles (a kaleidoscope of stripes and pin dots), but in between remains impeccably Thackerayesque - all custom tailoring and flawless decorum. With an appearance that beggars comment but a demeanor that belies it, Wolfe remains the anomaly he's always been: a police reporter dressed for a garden party.

Despite his much-heralded, late-in-the-career change of literary vehicles (the novel was four years in the making), Wolfe is still prowling his favorite beat: the status seekers' turf. And he is still writing with a Waugh-like savagery coupled with a journalist's instincts.

``I feel comfortable if the subject hasn't been written about and I've just heard about it in conversation. That's the journalist in me,'' says Wolfe. ``In the case of `The Bonfire of the Vanities,' I started hearing about the Bronx [District Court], and I just went up there day after day. ... I went out and did the same kind of reporting I would have done for nonfiction.''

One of the era's most distinctive prose stylists and an acute observer of America's mood swings, Wolfe has, in his novel, turned his satirist's gaze and technical virtuosity to the high roads and low roads of New York.

``Bonfire,'' which exploded out of the starting gate to land near the top of the New York Times best seller list, is a tale of two cities - one that pits Manhattan's rarefied stratosphere against the belly of the beast, the Bronx. It's page-turning fiction populated by the kind of relentlessly observed characters that dominate Wolfe's nonfiction. Sherman McCoy, millionaire bond trader, runs afoul of New York's criminal-justice system and cut-throat news media after a bizarre accident involving a Bronx ghetto youth. Other larger-than-life players include Larry Kramer, the hungry district attorney; Peter Fallow, callow yellow journalist; Tom Killian, the jaded Irish defense lawyer; and Reverend Bacon, a big-time Harlem scam-man.

It's an explosive mix in Wolfe's take-no-prisoners style, one that without the cushion of journalistic fact has set book critics to baying. Assessments range from ``hilarious'' and ``brilliantly plotted'' to something, well, far darker. ``What subway rider Bernard Goetz aimed at with his gun, the more gently conveyed Tom Wolfe aims at with his novel,'' said the Los Angeles Times.

``A nervousness creeps into one's laugh when Wolfe makes sport of current black sensitivity...,'' seconded the New York Times. ``A racist, in this case, is a satirist who plays favorites,'' stated the Boston Globe.

Wolfe, ever the gentleman in his hand-tailoring and Southern affability, bristles. Just a bit.

``Never in `Bonfire' did it cross my mind that I was writing satire,'' says the author with a faint smile, who also insists his novel is no roman `a clef. ``Some things that strike people as mockery or hyperbole were, to me, instances of my barely being able to keep abreast of what was occurring....

``I throw the critics a challenge,'' he continues. ``If you don't think this is a correct picture of New York today, then do your own reporting. I say you'll come back with what I did.''

In this instance of life imitating art, Wolfe maintains he had ``started my research before [Ivan] Boesky, before the [stock market] crash, before Goetz. ... In fact, I had this strong urge to put the fiction aside and go do a book on the Goetz case. I mean, I was the one who had said fiction was a secondary form [to journalism]. Why was I doing this novel?''

Why, indeed?

Wolfe's journalism had already served as a palimpsest of American pop culture. With his caricaturist's eye and reporter's nose for news, Wolfe had chronicled, albeit satirically, a couple of generations' worth of social change: '60s-style activism in ``Radical Chic''; self-awareness movements in ``Mauve Gloves & Madmen''; the US space program in ``The Right Stuff.'' Even modern art (``The Painted Word'') and modern architecture (``From Bauhaus to Our House'') did not escape Wolfe's Emperor's New Clothes approach to cultural revolution.

Many of the decade's most telling buzzwords - ``the me decade,'' ``radical chic,'' ``the right stuff'' - are bons mots of Wolfe's making.

So why a novel now?

``I had always contended that the two approaches [fiction and nonfiction] should be the same. But I had never done fiction and ... I always had the feeling that people were saying behind their hands, `All this big talk of Wolfe's is just an elaborate way of avoiding it.''

So Wolfe summoned his courage and plunged in. Yes, even this champion style-breaker had to take a couple of deep breaths at the typewriter. ``I was surprised I was so intimidated by fiction. The great thing about journalism back then was that nobody cared enough to make rules.'' Wolfe turned to one of his favorite novelists, Sinclair Lewis, as proof positive that writing a ```modern-day Babbitt'' could be done. ``Lewis proved my theory long before I did,'' says Wolfe. ``He was an inveterate reporter. I had always felt that today's fiction writers were passing up great devices and material and turning to those private concerns that Virginia Woolf called `the psychological glow.

``[But] I believe the `psychological glow' comes out of your experience in society at large and that much of our intense personal feelings are not private, but are the result of where and how you live,'' Wolfe says. ``These are all the theoretical things I wanted to explore and prove to myself in this novel.''

Indeed, Wolfe's preference for charting the inner man through the public persona has long been at the core of both his work and his personal life. Born in Richmond, Va., in 1931, the only son of an agronomist and farm journal editor, Wolfe studied literature at Virginia's Washington and Lee University. He tempered his Jeffersonian roots with graduate work in American studies at Yale, a stint Wolfe later characterized as ``tedium of the exquisite sort.''

After cutting his journalistic teeth on a handful of newspapers, including the Washington Post, Wolfe moved to the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, where his wit and hyperbolic style began to jell as the New Journalism. It was his trip to California in 1963 to cover a customized-car show for Esquire that eventually turned into the best-selling ``Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby'' that set Wolfe on his way as a seer of the American scene.

Although he has been a fixture on the New York literary circuit for 20 years, Wolfe remains at a partial remove, owing as much to his background as to his perpetual journalist's stance.

``I consider myself a Southerner more in terms of personality than in terms of ideas,'' says Wolfe. ``But in terms of New York, I'm outsider because everyone is.''

Indeed, Wolfe's love of journalistic inquiry remains intact. Scratch the surface of this new novelist, and the spirit of the veteran reporter surges to the fore. ``Today is much wilder than the '60s. Because today's social trends started in the '60s, they no longer seem so novel.

``I think the yuppie is a normal human being,'' adds Wolfe. ``In fact, I wish I had coined the term. It's brilliant. We went through two abnormal decades, the '60s and '70s. Now it's no longer bad form to flaunt wealth. It makes today much more like the '20s....But there is a big change coming. I call it `The Great Relearning.' I think the '90s will be dull.''

What does Wolfe see as the big new subjects? ``Universities. High schools. Religion. We're just getting a glimpse of it through the PTL scandal.''

It is not surprising, however, that Wolfe's love of the '60s remains uppermost in his mind. ``What is extraordinary is the way people swept aside standards that were in place for a millennium...It was an exhilarating time,'' says Wolfe, with a touch of Flaubert's reasoning.

``As a writer, who could ask for anything more?''

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