Tom Wolfe, Author Of 'Bonfire Of The Vanities,' Dies At 88 | KUOW News and Information

Tom Wolfe, Author Of 'Bonfire Of The Vanities,' Dies At 88

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 9:38 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tom Wolfe created unforgettable stories about test pilots and hippies, bikers and the lost denizens of Wall Street. He wrote best sellers like "The Right Stuff" and "Bonfire Of The Vanities." We have learned this morning that Tom Wolfe died yesterday in New York City. He was 88 years old. Joining us now NPR books correspondent Lynn Neary. Good morning, Lynn.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So it's hard to overstate Wolfe's presence in the literary world, wasn't it?

NEARY: He was absolutely an iconic figure. And you couldn't miss him in publishing circles and in literary circles. He was always dressed in white. He looked extremely dapper. He had a three-piece white suit complete with tie and a hat, always. He never dressed in any other color.

MARTIN: Wow.

NEARY: So that's one of the reasons you couldn't miss him. And he was one of a group of writers who helped to usher in the '60s with a new style of journalism that combined the eye of a journalist, the reporting skills of a journalist with a narrative style that was much closer identified at that time with fiction or with novels. And they called it narrative nonfiction. Now, many have taken part in - have written this style...

MARTIN: Hunter S. Thompson, right?

NEARY: Yeah, yeah. Right, exactly. And so he wrote in all of the major magazines of the day. And I think for young people, they might understand if I say he would have had the coolest blog.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

NEARY: He would have a million followers on social media.

MARTIN: Right.

NEARY: I mean, he was just a cool guy.

MARTIN: Right. And he brought that sensibility to his books as well.

NEARY: Absolutely. I think the first book that really he got - was well-known for was "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." This was an account of he traveled with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. And these were guys that were traveling around the country on a bus and experimenting with LSD. So it was really a lot of people's introduction to the whole idea of LSD and the effect that LSD could have, the very fun effect it could have.

MARTIN: Right.

NEARY: And it kind of made the idea of road trips and LSD sort of popular and cool also. He also was very well-known for "The Right Stuff," which was a book about the first group of American astronauts, who were very glamorous figures at the time. He focused on a couple of people and made them really famous. One of them was John Glenn. A lot of the book focused very favorably on John Glenn. Some of the astronauts did not come out looking so well. But the person who he seemed to like the best and think was the coolest and think really had the right stuff was the test pilot Chuck Yeager, who never even became an astronaut.

But it was obvious that Wolfe thought that he was a very cool guy.

MARTIN: And he was also a novelist. What are some of the novels that stick with you?

NEARY: Well, the one that he's best-known for, I think, is "Bonfire Of The Vanities." This was a brilliant sendup of New York City in the 1980s. And it was when the city seemed to be crumbling. And yet at the same time, the upper classes were making a lot of money on Wall Street. And he knew that society very well. So he was able to give people an idea of what it was like to be a wealthy New Yorker. And it wasn't a particularly favorable...

MARTIN: Not a flattering portrait.

NEARY: Not a - and he also saw the class divisions that were already beginning to appear in New York City and maybe around the country as well. And he gave a brilliant description of how difficult those class divisions were and what they could mean for us as a society.

MARTIN: Right. NPR books correspondent Lynn Neary helping us remember author/journalist Tom Wolfe. He passed away yesterday in New York City at the age of 88.

Thanks so much, Lynn.

NEARY: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.