Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies

Author Tom Wolfe died Monday of pneumonia at the age of 88, his longtime agent Lynn Nesbit confirmed Tuesday.

Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Mr. Wolfe had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.

In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.

But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”

It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms.

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.

From 1965 to 1981 Mr. Wolfe produced nine nonfiction books. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” an account of his reportorial travels in California with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they spread the gospel of LSD, remains a classic chronicle of the counterculture, “still the best account — fictional or non, in print or on film — of the genesis of the ’60s hipster subculture,” the media critic Jack Shafer wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review on the book’s 40th anniversary.

Even more impressive, to many critics, was “The Right Stuff,” his exhaustively reported narrative about the first American astronauts and the Mercury space program. The book, adapted into a film in 1983 with a cast that included Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris, made the test pilot Chuck Yeager a cultural hero and added yet another phrase to the English language. It won the National Book Award.

At the same time, Mr. Wolfe continued to turn out a stream of essays and magazine pieces for New York, Harper’s and Esquire. His theory of literature, which he preached in print and in person and to anyone who would listen, was that journalism and nonfiction had “wiped out the novel as American literature’s main event.”

After “The Right Stuff,” published in 1979, he confronted what he called “the question that rebuked every writer who had made a point of experimenting with nonfiction over the preceding 10 or 15 years: Are you merely ducking the big challenge — The Novel?”

‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’

The answer came with “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Published initially as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine and in book form in 1987 after extensive revisions, it offered a sweeping, bitingly satirical picture of money, power, greed and vanity in New York during the shameless excesses of the 1980s.

The action jumps back and forth from Park Avenue to Wall Street to the terrifying holding pens in Bronx Criminal Court, after the Yale-educated bond trader Sherman McCoy (a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe”) becomes lost in the Bronx at night in his Mercedes with his foxy young mistress, Maria. After the car, with Maria at the wheel, runs over a black man and nearly ignites a race riot, Sherman enters the nightmare world of the criminal justice system.

Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career.

Mr. Wolfe responded with a manifesto in Harper’s, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he lambasted American fiction for failing to perform the time-honored sociological duty of reporting on the facts of contemporary life, in all their complexity and variety.

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