Reading Tom Wolfe for the first time was like listening to rock ’n’ roll. I was blown away.
But reading him now after all these years is like listening to Little Richard. His breathless opening paragraphs, his occasionally manic style, can be overpowering at times.
No offence to either gent, both of whom have passed away — Wolfe in 2018, Little Richard this year. But they were really wild, which is more fun when you are young.
These breathless opening paragraphs describing a crush of girls waiting for a Rolling Stones concert in New York in 1965 are typical Tom Wolfe:
Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast mouldering cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvellous?
“Aren’t they super-marvellous!” says Baby Jane, and then: “Hi, Isabel! Isabel! You want to sit backstage — with the Stones!”
The show hasn’t even started yet, the Rolling Stones aren’t even on the stage, the place is full of a great shabby mouldering dimness, and these flaming little buds.
Girls are reeling this way and that way in the aisle and through their huge black decal eyes, sagging with Tiger Tongue Lick Me brush-on eyelashes and black appliqués, sagging like display window Christmas trees, they keep staring at her — Baby Jane — on the aisle. What the hell is this? She is gorgeous in the most outrageous way, Her hair rises up from her head in a huge hairy corona, a huge tan mane around a narrow face and two eyes opened — swock! — like umbrellas, with all that hair flowing down over a coat made of… zebra! Those motherless stripes! Here she is with friends, looking like some kind of queen bee for flaming little buds everywhere.
Those lines are from Tom Wolfe’s article, The Girl of the Year. The girl of the title — referred to here as Baby Jane — is former actress, model and Warhol superstar Jane Holzer.
“A lot of readers were enraged” when the article appeared in the Herald Tribune, Wolfe recalled in the introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first book. They were outraged because they considered her some kind of a freak. But “Baby Jane is the hyper-version of a whole new style of life in America”, he claimed.
Published in 1965, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby blew me away when I first read it in the 1970s because it was unlike anything I had read before. It was what Wolfe called New Journalism — more colourful than the writing we normally see in newspapers and magazines.
Wolfe could pull it off because he was an excellent writer. His writing can be as vivid as a movie. Look at his article, Marvellous Mouth, about the boxer Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Clay, also in the same book. Here, in a cheerful mood before his world heavyweight championship fight with Sonny Liston., Clay is helping buskers earn money in New York:
The autograph business had started now, and people were pushing in with paper and pens, but Cassius wheeled around toward the three coloured box, the musicians, and said, “Autographs are one dollar tonight. Everyone puts one dollar there” (the musicians had a corduroy-ribbed box in front of the tub) “gets the autograph of Cassius Clay, the world’s strongest fighter, the world’s most beautiful fighter, the onliest fighter who predicts when they will fall.”
The coloured boys took the cue and started up with “Pennies from Heaven” again. The kid who danced was doing the merengue by himself. The kid on the bass was flailing away like a madman. All the while Cassius was orating on the corner.
“Come on, man, don’t put no fifty cents in there, get that old dollar bill outa there. Think at all you’re getting free here, the music’s so fine and here you got Cassius Clay right in front of you in living colour, the next heavyweight champion of the world, the man who’s gon’ put old man Liston in orbit.”
The dollar bills started piling up in the box, and the solo merengue kid was dervishing around wilder still, and Cassius wouldn’t let up…
The bass man was pounding away, and Cassius turned to me and said behind his hand, “Man, you know one thing? If I get whipped, they gonna run me outa the country. You know that?”
Then he threw his head back and his arms out, as if he was falling backward. “Can you see me flat on my back like this?”The coloured kids were playing “Pennies from Heaven”, and Cassius Clay had his head thrown back and his arms out, laughing…
Wolfe excelled at descriptions like this. Here is another example from his famous article, The Last American Hero, about the stock car racer Junior Johnson. Instead of Johnson, we look at the girl on the float who is paraded around the circuit before the race begins:
Starting time! Linda Vaughn, with the big blonde hair and blossomy breasts, puts down her Coca-Cola and the potato chips and slips of her red stretch pants and her white blouse and walks out of the officials’ booth in her Rake-a-cheek red show-girl’s costume with her long honeydew legs in net stockings and climbs up on the red Firebird float. The Life Symbol of stock car racing! Yes! Linda, every luscious morsel of Linda, is a good old girl from Atlanta who was made Miss Atlanta International Raceway one year and was paraded around the track on a float and she liked it so much and the good old boys liked it so much, Linda’s flowing hair and blossomy breasts and honeydew legs, that she became the permanent glamour symbol of stock car racing, and never mind the other modelling she was doing… this, she liked it. Right before practically every race on the Grand National circuit Linda Vaughn puts down her Coca-Cola and potato chips. Her momma is there, she generally comes around to see Linda go around the track on the float, it’s such a nice spectacle seeing Linda looking so lovely, and the applause and all… Linda gets up on the Firebird float. This is such an extraordinary object, made of wood, about twenty feet tall, in the shape of a huge bird, an eagle or something, blazing red, and Linda, with her red showgirl’s suit on, gets up on the seat, which is up between the wings, like a saddle, high enough so her long honeydew legs stretch down, and a new car pulls her — Miss Firebird! — slowly once around the track just before the race. It is more of a ceremony by now than the national anthem. Miss Firebird sails slowly in front of the stands and the good old boys let out some real curdle Rebel yells, “Yaaaaahhhhoooo! Let me at that car!” “Honey, you sure do start my motor, I swear to God!”
The article, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, is about custom cars. Wolfe writes: “The first good look I had at customised cars was at an event called a ‘Teen Fair’, held in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles beyond Hollywood.” He sees a band playing and “about two hundred kids are doing frantic dances called the hully-gully, the bird and the shampoo”. Sharp as ever, he observes:
The dances the kids are doing are very jerky. The boys and girls don’t touch, not even with their hands. They just ricochet around. Then you notice the girls are dressed exactly alike. They have bouffant hairdos — all of them — and slacks that are, well, skin-tight does not get the idea across… It’s as if some lecherous old tailor with a gluteus-maximus fixation designed them, striation by striation…
And then he writes about their love for cars:
I don’t have to dwell on the point that cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe’s great formal century, say, 1750 to 1850. They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour — everything is right there.
Things have been going on in the development of the kids’ formal attitude toward cars since 1945, things of great sophistication that adults have not been even remotely aware of, mainly because the kids are so inarticulate about it, especially the ones most hipped on the subject. They are not from the levels of society that produce children who write sensitive analytical prose at age seventeen, or if they do, they soon fall into the hands of English instructors who put the onto Hemingway or a lot of goddamn-and-hungry-breast writers. If they ever write about a highway again, it’s a rain-slicked highway and the sound of the automobiles passing over it is like the sound of tearing silk, not that one household in ten thousand has heard the sound of tearing silk since 1945.
Wolfe writes about teenagers, celebrities, gamblers, casino workers in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He would go on to write about astronauts, too, in The Right Stuff and reign the bestseller lists with his phenomenally successful novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The Right Stuff and Bonfire were both made into movies.
He not only wrote like no one else but ventured into territories not explored before. So he says in his introduction to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby:
Practically every style recorded in art is the result of the same thing — a lot of attention to form, plus the money to make monuments to it. The “classic” English style of Inigo Jones, for example, places like the Covent Garden and the royal banquet hall at Whitehall, were the result of a worship of Italian Palladian grandeur… form… plus the money that began pouring in under James I and Charles I from colonial possessions… throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy has been responsible for. What happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their styles. Among teen-agers, this took the form of custom cars, the Twist, the Jerk, the Monkey, the Shake, rock music generally, stretch pants, decal eyes… It is not merely teen-agers. In the South, for example, all the proles, peasants, and petty burghers suddenly got enough money to start up their incredible car world. In fifteen years stock car racing has replaced baseball as the number one sport in the South.
But, he adds:
The educated classes in this country, as in every country, the people who grow up to control visual and printed communication media, are all plugged into what is, when one gets down to it, an ancient, aristocratic aesthetic. Stock-car racing, custom cars — and, for that matter, the Jerk, the Monkey, rock music — still seem beneath consideration, still the preserve the ratty people with ratty hair and dermatitis and corroded thoracic boxes and so forth. Yet all these rancid people are creating new styles all the time and changing the life of the whole country in ways that nobody even seems to bother to record, much less analyse.
Wolfe explored what others ignored in his distinctive style. That made him special.