Tom Wolfe, a feather between two chairs

It starts with a blank page and a night of the same color. Under the Avalanche: Tom Wolfe, 32, clinging to his typewriter. One evening in 1963, the journalist dries up completely when he has to send his first report to the American monthly Esquire, on Californians fond of customized cars. Editor-in-chief Byron Dobell is already biting his fingers over spending $ 10,000 on photos that will accompany a wooden text. He advises Wolfe to send him a letter with everything he has, a colleague will write the article. Obedient, the cripple shoots until dawn and sends 49 pages. In the afternoon, we call it: we will cut the beginning, «Cher Byron». But the rest will be published as is.

Wolfe’s letter is like sour candy, it’s sweet, it stings your tongue. We find inside all the jargon of burnt “Kustom City”, engine noise included («Varoom!»). Tuning fans are described as Miró, Picassos, that’s Guernica on a parking lot. At the end of the sleepless night, Wolfe found a whimsical and electric style, which he will never let go.


He will use it to spend the laser era, from hippies on LSD to the Black Panthers, inviting himself to an evening in their honor organized by the composer Leonard Bernstein in New York. (Park Avenue Leftism). At his host, Wolfe shoots on sight: “Wondering what the Black Panthers are choosing here on the sandwich board? ” African-American activists eat fragments of Roquefort and asparagus tips in front of New York society, served by docile South American servants. The picture is disastrous, but everything is true. Wolfe believes the new literature is here, in biting journalism worthy of the best fiction.

In 1972, Tom Wolfe proclaimed the advent of the “New Journalism”, a genre which combines the narrative techniques of the novel with a scrupulous respect for the facts, and which he intends to embody, with authors who have asked for nothing. An influential and golden generation: Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Gay Talese …

In reality, this journalism, which uses scenes or dialogues, is nothing new. In the XIXe century, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens already recounted reality in a romanticized way. For Wolfe, this label is above all a springboard, a ladder. Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo, moderately appreciates: “If you quote my name once again, compared to this ‘New Journalism’ deception that you are promoting, I would arrange to have your thighbones reduced to matches.” Wolfe will stay on top of the volcano thanks to a betrayal. In 1987, at the age of 57, he returned his white flannel jacket and began to write about things, as one goes to the enemy: The Bonfire of Vanities, A real man, Me, Charlotte Simmons“Entertainment, not literature”, pits novelist John Updike, one of his harshest critics.


In his well-documented books, Tom Wolfe continues to scratch the triple-layered varnish of bankers, rich kids and intellectuals. Appearances fascinated him. His life was not a subject, but he maintained his legend as carefully as his costumes. In 2006, in the world, he assured that his career had not taken much: “My two aunts, old maidens who lived in a town of fifty inhabitants, told me I was awesome. I believed it.”

Guillaume Pajot

Monday : Hunter S. Thompson, father of gonzo reporting


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