Amid the artful clutter of his apartment fourteen stories above East 79th Street, Tom Wolfe is just another bright, eccentric antique. Behind him are mauve hydrangeas and a mauve poster for Princeps cigars, which bring out the violet in his papery eyelids and veined hands and set off the white (of course!) of his fitted linen suit. Dark blue is today’s underplumage—navy shirt with white stripes, navy dots on white tie, white dots on navy socks, and the usual two-tone shoes.
“Kipling is today such an underrated poet—in my humble opinion,” Wolfe says, with that slightly southern softness so unlike his writing. He’s trying to explain what Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and later turned into a hymn, is doing in the brain of a muscle-bound Cuban-American cop in Wolfe’s panoramic Miami joyride of a fourth novel, Back to Blood.
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Wolfe often jokes about his alien origins. Whether chronicling acid-droppers, chic radicals, art-world charlatans, macho astronauts, or Wall Street Masters of the Universe, he has always impersonated a character all his own: a reporter who begs for answers but never pleads for acceptance. As he’s said, “It is much more effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.”
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Wolfe switched to fiction 25 years ago because he envied its power, and because he wanted to change the novel—to bring “the dirt of everyday life” to a form mired in insular fables. At the height of a career spent dissecting status pretensions for sport, he staked his own reputation on nothing less than a sea change in how novelists wrote the story of America, hoping to single-handedly spawn a great revival of the social novel as practiced by Zola, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis.
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Wolfe’s early articles were collected in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which Kurt Vonnegut rated an “excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention.” Then came The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a road trip with the Merry Pranksters that felt telecast straight from the addled brains of the druggies themselves. It was reporting as ventriloquism, and shuttled Wolfe to the head of what was coming to be known as “the New Journalism.” He co-edited a 1973 anthology under that title. In its introduction, he argued that novelists had turned their back on social reality, leaving him and his fellow contributors—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and the like—to fill the void with fact.
Link to the rest at Vulture