In a career that spanned more than half a century, Tom Wolfe wrote fiction and non-fiction bestsellers including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Bonfire of the Vanities. Along the way, he created a new type of journalism and coined phrases that became part of the American lexicon. Wolfe died Monday in Manhattan. He was 87.
Wolfe didn't start a novel with a character or a plot, but rather, with an idea. In 1987, wearing his signature white suit, Wolfe told me how he began his first novel, a panoramic story of New York Society:
"I looked at the whole city first," he said. "I wanted to do New York High and Low. I figured Wall Street could stand for the high end, and also some of the life on Park Avenue. And at the low end there would be what you find caught up in the criminal mechanism in the Bronx. Once I zeroed in on these areas, I would then find the characters."
The novel that grew out of Wolfe's research — The Bonfire of the Vanities — was the tale of Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader who loses everything after a wrong turn in the South Bronx with his mistress in the passenger seat. It was a huge critical and commercial success. Wolfe had written the novel from the same "You-Are-There," stream of consciousness, first-person perspective that he pioneered in his non-fiction 20 years earlier.
"I've always contended on a theoretical level that the techniques ... for fiction and non-fiction are interchangeable," he said. "The things that work in non-fiction would work in fiction, and vice-versa."