Tom Wolfe died

According to many sources, including the New York Times, author Tom Wolfe has died at 88 in New York City. He had been hospitalized for an infection.

There was much of Wolfe’s prose I admired, particularly his books The Right Stuff, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  I didn’t pay much attention to his novels, and I savaged his last book, The Kingdom of Speech (an attack on Noam Chomsky, Darwin, and evolutionary biology), in the Washington Post.

So my verdict on his work is mixed, but assessing it as a whole, there is clearly more good prose in the world than if Wolfe had never existed.

Photo: Mark Seliger


  1. jaxkayaker
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t make it to the end of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Greatly enjoyed The Last Roadside Attraction. I still want to read some of his other novels, and The Right Stuff, but time is of the essence. At least we’ll get no more antiscience nonsense from him.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      If you’re thinking of Another Roadside Attraction, that was the (very much alive) Tom Robbins, not Tom Wolfe.

      Damn good book, though.

      • Merilee
        Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        I remember the guy climbing around the steep steps in the Vatican after having commandeered a nun’s habit and complaining about the many buttons.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was the book my wife was reading when I met her. She gave it to me when she finished, and I backtracked from there to Roadside. I eagerly plowed through his next several, but kinda lost track of him after Fierce Invalids.

          Think I’ll pick up one of his more recent outings and give it a go.

          • Merilee
            Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

            Haven’t read him since maybe Skinny Legs and All or Still Life with Woodpecker. He has a way with titles.

      • Posted May 15, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Never could get through anything by Tom Robbins.

        The Right Stuff, on the other hand, I loved.

  2. Merilee
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Um, Another Roadside Attraction was Tom Robbins, whose early novels were hilarious. Like Jerry, I liked Wolfe’s non-fiction much better thsn his novels. Don’t intend to read his latest.

    • Posted May 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes: NF better than his novels.

  3. ploubere
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Wolfe was a vastly entertaining writer. I quite enjoyed The Painted Word and A Man in Full. It was sad to see him lose his way with Kingdom.

  4. Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed his books, especially “The Right Stuff”. I didn’t read “The Kingdom of Speech” but it sounds like he was writing outside his area of expertise, though I do have my doubts about a lot of Noam Chomsky’s work. The evolution of his speech stuff reminds me of Copernican epicycles.

  5. nicky
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    De mortuis nil nisi bonem dicendum est. (freely: of the dead nothing but good should be said).
    I do not fully, or rather always, agree, but in this case we may, I’d say.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read all four of Wolfe’s novels, and they’re a mixed bag. All of ’em are flawed in their own way, the last two (I Am Charlotte Simmons and Back to Blood) much more than the first two (Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full). But his novels brought to the fore a renewed interest in Victorian-style realistic fiction on a grand scale — shades of his heroes Thackeray and Dickens, Balzac and Zola.

    Nevertheless, it’s on the strength of the manic prose of his New Journalism that Wolfe’s reputation will endure. I had some mixed feelings about Wolfe, but I’ll miss knowing he’s out there with his gimlet eye and acid pen, and miss having his take on things.

    • Posted May 15, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I admit to taking sides in his contretemps with Updike and other writers, though to be honest I didn’t quite grasp it all. I guess I came down against Wolfe only because I like Updike that much more. Still, in the context it was frustrating to say I like Wolfe’s novels, especially Bonfire -a much better takedown of modern USAan virtues than American Psycho. A Man in Full got a lot of flak (see above) but I liked it too. It is always a sad day when a fine if imperfect voice is lost. RIP.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 15, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Hey, what’s the literary world without an occasional feud? There’s no forgiving Wolfe, though, for the viciousness of his attacks on Updike and Mailer (and John Irving) in his “My Three Stooges” piece. Updike and Mailer had written serious reviews of A Man in Full, containing as much praise as they did opprobrium. (All poor Irving had done to earn the hiding he got from Wolfe, IIRC, was to pass a disparaging remark in the course a Canadian tv interview.)

  7. Posted May 15, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Writersxare always remembered by their best work. Wolfe’ book on language will fall into obscurity but we’ll still be reading The Right Stuff a century from now.

    • Craw
      Posted May 15, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Yup. Some splendid stuff. Too bad he was a crank on evolution, but then look at what has happened to E O Wilson in recent years. Conan Doyle wrote a lot of mercifully forgotten stuff too.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 16, 2018 at 5:57 am | Permalink

        Huh? When I was young I found Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger novels fascinating, particularly The Lost World, which had dinosaurs surviving on top of a Brazilian mesa (Roraima?) – the progenitor of a couple of movies of the same name and doubtless every other dinosaur movie including Jurassic Park.

        So far as I recall, Conan Doyle never called Darwinian evolution into doubt. That is the exact antithesis of Tom Woolfe.

        (Conan Doyle’s blind spot was his fascination with spiritualism, but that was quite irrelevant to evolution).


  8. Posted May 15, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ll never forget how he characterized modern urban architecture: The turd in the plaza.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Reading Wolfe reminds me of eating in one of those nouveau 1950s-style diners that began popping up in the 1980s. (“Ed Debevic’s” in Chicago is the first one I recall going to.) It’s fun, and it’s tasty — and, lord knows, the portions are huge. But if it’s balanced nutrition you’re looking for, you’d be better off elsewhere.

  10. George
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I commented about “The Right Stuff” on April 9 on the anniversary of the Mercury 7.

    The book (1979) was Tom Wolfe’s greatest writing by far. If you were a kid during that era (I was born in 1956), he caught the zeitgeist of that time perfectly. The astronauts were such heroes in this battle with the godless commies. Who seemed to be winning the space race. In October of 1962, a few weeks after I started first grade, the nuns were teaching us how to duck and cover under our desks during the Cuban missile crisis. Not sure what good it would have done – maybe our toasted little bodies would have been found in a compact position. But at least we had these seven brave men fighting on our behalf. And Wolfe did a great job writing about them.

    Philip Kaufman’s film (1983) was just as great but very different. To try to adapt Wolfe’s literary style to the screen would have been a disaster so Kaufman just took the material and created a very different work of art. And he had the late Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager. The movie was a box office flop. Still nominated for eight Oscars. It lost best picture to Terms of Endearment – another laughable best picture win. Kaufman was not nominated for best director. Shepard lost to Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment for Best Supporting Actor.

    If asked what is better, the book or the movie, my answer is “Yes.” Read the book, see the movie.

    • Posted May 15, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Even though the book and movie are different, I do think the movie caught the tone of the book and the time perfectly. I was born in 1952 and was interested in a career in aerospace until I got to college and discovered computers. The space program was something I followed very closely.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 15, 2018 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      I agree that TRS is peak Wolfe — and that the movie made from it is peak Philip Kaufman.

      Speaking of movies made from Wolfe books, one of the great Hollywood disasters by a top director is Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities (although it did result in one of the all-time virtuoso opening long takes, recalling Scorsese’s famous “Copa” tracking shot from Goodfellas). The entire imbroglio also spawned a pretty good book about failed film-making, Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy.

      • Merilee
        Posted May 15, 2018 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        Must say I didn’t recognize Bruce Willis.

      • Ken Phelps
        Posted May 15, 2018 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

        Well whoever cast Tom Hanks should be shot. He was soooo not that character.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 15, 2018 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I think everyone pictured someone like William Hurt in the Sherman McCoy role. I know I did when I read the novel.

          As much as I like Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith, they were both badly miscast in that calamity.

  11. Ken Phelps
    Posted May 15, 2018 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who can lodge the phrase “fulginous flatness” in my brain deserves respect. By drawing his images of pretense with flamboyantly pretentious language, Wolfe managed to slip in two shivs simultaneously.

  12. Posted May 15, 2018 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read and enjoyed a few of his novels: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, and I am Charlotte Simmons.

  13. Posted May 16, 2018 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    I wish his name had been different. It detracts from the memory of the earlier Thomas Wolfe, who IMHO was one of our greatest novelists. At least his home town of Asheville, NC remembers him. There are little angels imprinted in some of the sidewalks downtown (“Look Homeward, Angel”). There’s also art deco on some of the older buildings downtown that remind you of the boom days before the Great Depression that he describes in “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 16, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Wolfe the latter was also a son of the South, from Richmond, I believe. He often spoke and wrote glowingly about his namesake.

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