There are not many men in my life, but Tom Wolfe is one of them. He seems to have accompanied me through many stages of my life.
He published ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ in 1968, when everyone of my generation was experimenting with drugs – smoking pot, dropping acid (I, of course, only inhaled…).
In 1970 he published ‘Radical Chic’. Like everyone in the States, I had watched the race riots of the late 60’s open-mouthed on television, and could not have been more amazed to see Black Power move from the street into the highstyle living rooms of the wealthy and the powerful. From that moment on, even without knowing the actual word, I knew the meaning of the word ‘salonfähigkeit’.
As a matter of fact, my own particular copy has a special personal meaning for me as well. When I took it out of the bookcase to prepare this introduction, I saw that it was given to me in 1980, three months after I had started as a rookie reporter at the newspaper Het Parool, by my then boss, ,,with appreciation and respect”. ‘Radical Chic’ was the book that he held up to me as an example of what our profession was capable of.
And Tom Wolfe was there again when I started writing about architecture, with his sardonic and irreverent take on modern-day design in ‘From Bauhaus to our house’. I have attempted to emulate his attitude of interested detachment, although I am sorry to say that I am not nearly as funny as he is.
He was even there at a much earlier stage in my life, with his book ‘The Right Stuff’. It is about the hot fighter pilots, and later astronauts, who made their mark on postwar aviation and space travel from Edwards Air Force Base in California. I was born on Edwards Air Force base, and my father was a member of the pilots’ support team. My dad told me a bit about his work there, but it was from Tom Wolfe that I learned the real story.
And then there was ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, followed by ‘A Man in Full’ and most recently by ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’. These are novels, at least that is what they’re called. But novels are usually fiction. That means, the writer made everything, or most everything, up in his own imagination. Tom Wolfe doesn’t make much up. He still has the reporter’s instinct for going OUT THERE to get his material, rather than closing the curtains and going IN THERE to delve into the recesses of his own mind.
Even in his novels, Tom Wolfe is to my mind still just as much journalist and sociologist as novelist. In the past he has called himself a ‘status theorist’, which sounds like something we should definitely be teaching at our universities. He has certainly honed the study of status to a fine science. You just have to look at the way he himself dresses to see that.
As you all no doubt know, Wolfe was the founder of New Journalism in the sixites – more or less by accident, if I understand it correctly. He got stuck in an ambitious story, and ended up just typing out his notes in a 40-page stream of consicousness narrative, together with all the Wolfeian tricks we’ve come to love – the italics, the theatrical sides, the exclamation marks. The magazine, Esquire, printed it pretty much as was, and New Journalism was born.
It would be more than twenty years before he published his first novel. He will probably never admit it in public – of course I’m going to try to get him to later on this evening – but he has a very ambivalent relationship to fiction. As do all journalists. He has criticized the contemporary American literary scene for not painting the broad panorama of American life. He calls his novels ,,realistic fiction”, or ,,a highly detailed realism based on reporting”.
So where, I wonder, does creative journalism stop and fiction begin? I have coined a new term for work of this kind of work – work which, you will understand, is very close to my own heart – which is ‘novelism’. This is a blurring of boundaries, and therefore of competences, which the literary world has not taken kindly too. As a friend of his said: ,,Tom really likes to have fun, which is in very poor taste in the intellectual community.”
No matter what you call the genre, novelism or otherwise, Wolfe has created characters that for a long time to come will continue to people America’s, and our, literary landscape. He gave us Sherman McCoy, the self-styled Master of the Universe; he gave us Charlie Croker, self-styled Master of the Plantation; he gave us Charlotte Simmons, the gifted goody two-shoes turned college bimbo touting her bellybutton. They’re all on top, or on their way up, and as readers we stand by helplessly as they crash and burn. Wolfe’s heroes obviously have a talent for engineering their own downfall, while weaving us inextricably into their lives in the process.
Wolfe himself has compared the role of the novelist to that of an explorer, with himself in the role of ,,Cortéz reporting back from unknown territories”. I hope he can tell us, in here this evening, what it’s like out there.
I give you, a man in full, Tom Wolfe.