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Tom Wolfe dead; 'New Journalism' pioneer and bestselling author was 88

Author and journalist Tom Wolfe at home in

Author and journalist Tom Wolfe at home in New York in 2016. Photo Credit: AP/Bebeto Matthews

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,” 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. Wolfe lived in Manhattan and had a home in Southampton.

Wolfe’s hyperbolic, stylized writing 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. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.

“He was an incredible writer,” Talese told the AP on Tuesday. “And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried it was a disaster.”

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.

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 Award 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 bestseller and a National Book Award nominee.

His first book, a collection of articles titled “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” included the story “Clean Fun at Riverhead,” about the Riverhead Raceway on Long Island, of which he wrote, “The demolition derby is, pure and simple, a form of gladiatorial combat for our times.” Wolfe traveled during the ‘60s with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for his book on the psychedelic culture, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Wolfe had many detractors — including fellow writers Norman Mailer and John Updike and the critic James Wood, who panned Wolfe’s “big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration.”

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born in Richmond, Virginia. He became co-editor of his high school newspaper before moving on to Washington and Lee University and later earning a doctorate in American studies from Yale University. In 1957, he joined the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union and instantly fell in love with journalism. By 1962 he was working at the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, with colleagues including Jimmy Breslin.

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

It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that Wolfe turned his attention to fiction. His topic: New York City in the late 20th century, a melange of sexual tension, class struggles and racial animus. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” first appeared as a serial in “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1984-85, with Wolfe writing the book one chapter at a time. When it was released as a novel in 1987, “Bonfire” became an immediate sensation even as it was criticized for its portrayal of blacks.

Later works, such as “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (2004), were not well received. But he was never without ideas for future projects.

“There are still so many things I don’t know about the city and I’d just like to see what’s out there,” he told the Aassociated Press in 2012. “The Latin American population has increased enormously since ‘Bonfire’ and Wall Street has changed enormously. I’ll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what happens.”

BOOKS BY TOM WOLFE

Some highlights of his literary career.

NONFICTION

“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (1965)

“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968)

“The Right Stuff” (1979)

“Hooking Up” (2000)

“The Kingdom of Speech” (2016)

FICTION

“The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987)

“A Man in Full” (1998)

“I Am Charlotte Simmons” (2004)

“Back to Blood” (2012)

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