Tom Wolfe’s Empty White Suit

Tom Wolfe, an early and awful influence on my writing, died this week.

As a teen, I worked at a library and spent hours in the fiction section, searching for interesting covers and weird titles when I stumbled on Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, it seemed like a jackpot. It was a book about LSD and outlaw hippies written with dazzling writing and knowing cynicism. I read it in a hungry daze before moving on to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a collection of Wolfe’s magazine articles with a similarly jaunty title and then to his novel, Bonfire of the Vanities.

Wolfe’s wordplay and snide tone inspired me to reel off glib, alliterative and em-dash littered screeds of my own. I never went so far as wearing one of Wolfe’s trademark white suits but I considered it. Later, I’d learn of his vile politics and recognize it in his writing. I saw him for the shallow hustler he truly was and have regretted his influence on my work.

Wolfe was the first writer I self-discovered. Young, literate weirdos get steered towards a set list of popular outsider lit: Catcher in the Rye, Kurt Vonnegut, the beatniks, maybe Hunter Thompson or Charles Bukowski. Wolfe felt more “mine” because I found him on my own. Reading him felt like being in some kind of elite club. He wrote bitchy little putdowns of everyday people of and culture, inviting readers to feel smarter, or at least of better taste, than the masses. And he spit his acid at the upper crust, too, writing scenes like Leonard Bernstein imagining Black Panthers eating walnut and cheese hors d’oeuvres.

He was a mechanically bad writer. That’s a weird thing to say three paragraphs after describing his writing as dazzling, but both things are true. He was like a flashy basketball player who mastered show-off tricks but couldn’t be counted on in the clutch. He’d stuff a paragraph with 10 overheated dashes and five ghastly exclamation points. He’d string words, punctuation and sounds to create impressionistic phrases that are as cute and clever as they are meaningless, such as the Esquire headline “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rash!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…

All this snide word play works to uphold a toxic status quo. Wolfe was a staunch conservative and, like his fellow right wing vampire William F. Buckley, used sparkling erudition to fight equality and preserve the dominance of white elites. It was discomfiting seeing Wolfe defend George W. Bush deep into the Iraq War. I realized decades after reading it that “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” wasn’t just a funny riff on the Manhattan art scene meeting Black Panthers but an ideologically-driven takedown of limousine liberals and revolutionaries.

Wolfe worked hard to assure his audiences that the people white elites dominated weren’t human. In Wolfe’s work, black people are as parasitic vermin feeding off of white people’s misguided good intentions. In his article “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” black men put the squeeze on a social service worker for easy money and the thrill of instilling fear. Likewise, the black people in Bonfire of Vanities are dangerous nuisances who destroy their own neighborhoods hoping to snare wealthy white robbery victims. They’re mainly faceless, save a race hustler modeled after Al Sharpton exploiting the death of a black teen for profit and fame.

As I grew as a writer, I became suspicious of Wolfe’s knowing, bitchy tone. It seemed lazy. I wondered if what seemed at first like finely observed and carefully sketched observations were in truth just the casual bullying you’d hear in a country club’s locker room.

As a journalist, Wolfe was a gadfly on the wall, observing events and people and filtering them through his snobbish sensibilities. He mixed editorializing with reporting and, I’m guessing, probably made a lot of stuff up. It seems he put in the time but not the work needed for reporting. I’ve covered stuff his way, creating funny and bitchy little records of whatever was going on in my head at that time. I’ve also covered stories where I interviewed everyone at length to capture their humanity, knowledge and passion and those stories were invariably better and truer.

In his writing, Wolfe was an invisible man in a white suit. You’d think no part of him was present save his opinion. And famously, at least once, no part of him was present at all. Left to speculation, he got the story deeply wrong while a more disreputable and talented writer got it right.

Hunter Thompson and Wolfe’s reporting overlapped in the late ‘60s. While Wolfe trailed Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters early experiments with LSD, Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. The angels and pranksters met for a party Wolfe wrote about but didn’t attend—he relied on Thompson’s tape recording for his account. Wolfe wrote about a mind-expanding meeting of emerging counterculture groups. Thompson ripped into the grim meathook reality of a disturbing night of childlike stupidity and rape that portended a troubling future.

Thompson later called Wolfe a “thieving pile of albino warts.” It’s evidence of his superior use of the language and how his bracing and hilarious honesty will be valued years after Wolfe’s glib stylizing is forgotten.