I was introduced to Tom Wolfe in the late 1970s, a year or two after I had begun my journalistic career as the literary editor at National Review, by Timothy Dickinson — an Oxford man working for Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper’s — who was (as he doubtless remains) the sole ambulatory compendium of the British Museum. As Wolfe was fond of Middle Eastern cuisine, we met for lunch at a Lebanese place in Manhattan’s Garment District.
While saying goodbye on the sidewalk out front of the restaurant after the meal, Timothy dropped his walking stick which was headless; only the screw that had once fastened the missing head in place protruding from the top of the shaft. Timothy dropped to the pavement, where he remained, a portly figure in a morning coat and striped trousers, as he groped blindly on all fours about the feet of the columnar figure of Wolfe, dressed in shining white linen, for his stick and monocle: impassive.
The New Journalism, of which Tom Wolfe was the principal inventor along with Dr Hunter S. Thompson and a few others in the early 1960s, is now as dead as the penny dreadfuls and the jingo journalism of the early 1900s. Wolfe was convinced that the death of the novel, whose imagined demise was being widely discussed in the literary journals of the period, was an actual fact. If that were indeed the case, he reasoned, some new literary form was needed to replace it.
His answer to this need was participatory journalism, in which journalists realized their reportorial subjects as novelistic characters and the reporter inserted himself among them and joined in their activities on the printed page. Active participation was Rule Number One; Rule Number Two was immediacy. The trick was to catch and convey the freneticism, the exaggeration, the hyper-pace, the hyper-stimulation and the hyper-sexuality that distinguished what Wolfe named the Purple Decades — fueled by revolutionary enthusiasms, booze and, above all, drugs — through the relentless deployment of a style similar to that of the morning radio shows, its breathless quality suggested by the liberal use of ellipses.
The technique was effective, compelling and exciting, but it was not entirely original, Wolfe having borrowed it directly from Céline, the French novelist of the pre-war period whom he admired. And it had three significant weaknesses: the extent to which it courted self-parody; its easy imitability; and the degree to which stylistic excitement gave way to monotony of tone (always the same key and mood) and of voice, as the authorial one, merging with those of the subject-characters, produced a hyped stream of consciousness accentuated by a relentless beat as tiresome, finally, as rap music’s.Wolfe was a highly skilled writer, yet he — like Céline — was a textbook example of how a writer writes when, having no true style of his own, he tries to conceal the fact. A careful reader will note how, in the fiction as in the journalistic essays, on the occasions when Wolfe lapses for practical reasons into straightforward prose (Radical Chic offers many examples of this), the writing is indistinguishable from that found in the commercial magazines.