The police reporter at the garden party
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.''Skip to next paragraph
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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.
``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....