The real thing: how Tom Wolfe awakened our reality hunger

Wolfe the novelist fought his corner against the “two old piles of bones” – Mailer and Updike – but it was his non-fiction that changed the way we read.

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It blasts off like an Atlas rocket from the pad at Cape Canaveral, a narrative engine at full throttle from the very first page, when soon-to-be astronaut Pete Conrad finds the burned remains of his fellow Navy test pilot, Bud Jennings, in a swamp in Jacksonville, Florida. Jennings has “bought it”, “augured in”, “crunched”, and Tom Wolfe, in his 1979 classic of narrative non-fiction, not only whispers astro-slang into the reader’s ear but blows the full horror of Conrad’s discovery right into the reader’s nose. The stench “came in through the nostrils and burned the rhinal cavities raw and penetrated the liver and permeated the bowels like a black gas until there was nothing in the universe, inside or out, except the stench of the char,” Wolfe writes. If you can stomach the sight of such a death, then you might just have The Right Stuff. Wolfe’s gripping tale of the Mercury 7 astronaut programme, and the men who led the space race, reignited a fascination with NASA’s perilous beginnings, a fascination which has not dimmed since. And its title entered the language as the apotheosis of – as we say in the 21st century – performative masculinity.

“Masters of the Universe” – that’s another one of Wolfe’s, from his epic 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities. In the best traditions of 19th-century fiction, it was first published as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine, and charted the excesses of New York in the Eighties, when the greed and so-called glory of Wall Street appeared to have reached an apex, and when crime and homelessness provided a bitter counterpoint. Which sounds strangely familiar: Wolfe was always ahead of the game. His longing to be a big beast in the fictional jungle put some of his contemporaries’ noses out of joint: reviewing his 1998 novel, A Man in Full, John Updike wrote that “it amounts to entertainment, not literature”. Norman Mailer was equally unimpressed; Wolfe simply called the pair of them “two old piles of bones”. Great White Males, slugging it out for the top spot of on the literary heap.

But Wolfe, I reckon, has had the last laugh. The power of Wolfe’s style – and the style of his fellow travellers in the school of the “New Journalism”, writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion – turned narrative non-fiction into the publishing powerhouse it is today. Before Wolfe and his ilk, facts were facts, pretty dry when laid out end to end. In 1968 Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – which followed Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” in psychedelic style – made reading non-fiction a trip. Sure, novels still grip the public imagination these days, but Wolfe awakened a thirst for what we think of as the “real”. Think of all those movies that tell us they’re “based on a true story”. Truth is an excuse, a reason to pay attention, above and beyond the simple power of story. You’re learning something, it’s good for you, it’s not just escapism.

All effective narrative hides its bias: we like to think we see what is, not what the writer presents us. And so here we are, in Trump-world, Brexit-world, in our individual narrative fortresses. You saw the way the wind was blowing, Tom, saw it before we did. You smelled the stench: and let us smell it, too. 

 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge