Friday, October 9, 2015

How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe

[ed. He had The Write Stuff.]

Is he, like, really old?” Dixie asks. Dixie is my 13-year-old daughter, who, a few days earlier, had been told that her special trip with her father needed to be interrupted for the better part of a day so that he might pay a call on Tom Wolfe.

“Eighty-five,” I say. “But he’s a very young 85.” As if that helps. To a 13-year-old, 85 might as well be 2,000. She doesn’t like the idea of this trip at all. “Look,” I say, or something like it. “I want at least one of my children to meet him. I think he’s a big reason it ever occurred to me to do what I do for a living. Because the first time I ever thought ‘writer,’ I also thought ‘delight.’ ”

She’s not listening. She knows we’re going to see Tom Wolfe for reasons that have nothing to do with her. She doesn’t care what I do for a living. She doesn’t care who Tom Wolfe is—it was all she could do to drag herself to click on his Wikipedia entry. What she cares about, intensely, are plane crashes. She hates flying, and, in this case, I can’t say I blame her. So I try all over again to explain why, to travel quickly from Martha’s Vineyard to Long Island, you can’t fly in a normal plane, only a small one or a helicopter, and that the weather’s too dicey for a helicopter. That’s when our pilot finally appears. He’s got a swagger about him, which might be reassuring, or the opposite, depending on your feelings about male confidence. He leads us onto the Martha’s Vineyard airport runway and into a maze of Gulfstreams and Lears and Hawkers. The sight of the jets perks Dixie up—private planes aren’t nearly as small as she imagined. They’re sleek and indestructible, like the chariots of visiting gods. When our pilot stops, though, it is not beside a Hawker or a Lear or a Gulfstream. It’s not clear what it is. When I first spotted it I thought it might be a drone. I half expected the pilot to pull out a remote control and show us how to play with it. Instead he produces a step stool and shows us how to climb up on the wing without breaking it. My child looks at me like, well, like a 13-year-old girl being taken on a suicide mission to visit a 2,000-year-old man—and then crawls on all fours across the wing, to squeeze into the doggy door on the side.

“Where’s the other pilot?” I ask, before following.

“It’s jes’ me,” the pilot says, with a chuckle. It’s a reassuring chuckle. A faintly southern chuckle—though he’s not from the South. “Something happens to me, here’s what you do,” he says as he straps himself in. “This lever here.” He grabs a red knob beside his seat. “This shuts down the engine. Jes’ pull that back and you shut it down. And this lever here … ” He grabs a bright-red handle on the ceiling over his head. “Yank down on this with 45 pounds of pressure. That’ll release the parachute.”

“The parachute?”

“No sense having the engine running with the parachute open,” he says, ignoring the 10 questions that naturally precede the one to which this is the answer.

“What did you say your name was?” I hadn’t paid attention the first time. Now that I was going to be parachuting into the ocean with his inert body I needed to be able to explain to the authorities who he was.

“Jack Yeager,” he says.



“As in—”

“I get that all the time. People think we’re related.” He fires up his toy propellers.

“You know who Chuck Yeager is?”

“Everyone knows who Chuck Yeager is.”

Dixie doesn’t know who Chuck Yeager is, but her brain is on tilt. One day, perhaps, she’ll want to know.

“You know why—right?” I holler.

“He broke the sound barrier.”

“No, I mean, you know why anyone knows Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, or cares?”

He shakes his head. He’s busy declaring to the airport authorities his improbable intention to take off from their runway in his toy plane.

“It’s because of Tom Wolfe,” I shout.

“Who’s Tom Wolfe?” (...)

In the late 1960s a bunch of writers leapt into the void: George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and the rest. Wolfe shepherded them into an uneasy group and labeled them the New Journalists. The New Journalists—with Wolfe in the lead—changed the balance of power between writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction, and they did it chiefly because of their willingness to submerge themselves in their subjects, and to steal from the novelist’s bag of tricks: scene-by-scene construction, use of dramatic dialogue, vivid characterization, shifting points of view, and so on.

I doubt I was ever alone in failing to find the whole New Journalism story entirely satisfying. (Hunter Thompson, for instance, wrote Wolfe, “You thieving pile of albino warts…. I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connexion [sic] with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting.”) For a start, there wasn’t anything new about the techniques. Mark Twain used them to dramatize his experiences as a riverboat pilot and a gold miner. George Orwell set himself up as a destitute tramp and wrote up the experience as nonfiction. Virtually every British travel writer who has ever left an unpaid bill might be counted a New Journalist. When you look at that list of New Journalists, what pops to mind is not their common technique. It’s their uncommon voices. They leapt off the page. They didn’t sound like anyone else’s.

by Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair |  Read more:
Image: Gasper Tringale