.Bonfire Lighter

Writer Tom Wolfe gleefully changed the face of American journalism

Nobody cares very much about essayists these days, let alone newspaper and magazine feature writers, no matter how outrageous they try to be or how much they’re followed in the classroom or the barroom. So in a way, Radical Wolfe—a documentary profile of Tom Wolfe, written by Berkeley’s Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and directed by Richard Dewey—is a postcard from another land, a stimulating, if ultimately wistful, look back at the last world-famous American reporter and his times.

Phrasemaker Wolfe (1930-2018) gave the lexicon “the right stuff,” “the me decade,” “radical chic,” “masters of the universe,” “social x-ray women” and countless other arrows from a bottomless social commentary quiver. Basically, this native Virginian, Yale-educated darling of the New York literary establishment was a witness, a gadfly, a spy—the only person at the racetrack, the NASA launch or the art gallery who saw it his way, wrote it up in hypercharged language and called it out in no uncertain terms. His motto came from Honoré de Balzac: “I belong to the party of the opposition.”

From an enormous field, the filmmakers select a familiar-looking montage of images from the latter half of the 20th century—was there ever a time so frantically busy?—plus a list of talking heads who give the impression of treading softly for the camera—author Gay Talese is the most enthusiastic cheerleader—while adding up Wolfe’s greatest hits.

A job at the New York Herald Tribune led to one at Esquire magazine, where Wolfe employed his onomatopoeic arsenal of interjections in sensational scene-setting, gleefully defying the classic “inverted pyramid” rules. His stream-of-consciousness accounts were an immediate hit with the public and publishers, and in the ’60s Wolfe’s feature stories became best-selling books, à la The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, about SoCal hot-rodders, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about San Francisco hippies.

“[Wolfe] showed non-fiction writers how much is possible in the form,” says Lewis, whose 2015 Vanity Fair mag tribute to the white-suited dandy is the genesis of this doc. Also among the onscreen admirers: historian Niall Ferguson, journalist Gail Sheehy and Terry McDonell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire. Actor Jon Hamm contributes readings from Wolfe’s work, giving the film an appropriate Mad Men tilt.

Not every writer in Wolfe’s orbit was a fan. His real or manufactured feuds with Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, John Updike, J.D. Salinger and the entire staff of The New Yorker—Wolfe described that august publication as a “mummified relic”—kept gossip columnists in a feeding frenzy.

One of Wolfe’s hairiest dust-ups came in 1970, when he wrangled an invitation—he admits he stole it—to composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s fundraising soiree for members of the Black Panther Party, in the maestro’s posh Park Avenue home. When Wolfe’s reportage was published as Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, he guffawed at the spectacle of effete “leftist” white socialites sipping cocktails with leather-jacketed Black revolutionaries.

Ostensibly the writer was out to expose rich culture-tourists attempting to buy their way into the equal rights clean-plate club. College professor Jamal Joseph, a former Panther, is not amused—he argues that Bernstein’s event benefited the Panthers’ programs and that Wolfe “put a derisive label on good work that was happening.”

The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s most famous book, takes readers into the mind-frame of America’s astronauts at the height of the space race. But the resulting movie can’t escape being a commercial for the military-industrial complex. His first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is a richly woven satirical masterpiece of crime, politics and greed, set in go-go ’80s New York. However, it was followed by a toothless film version.

Seen from today, Wolfe’s star gleams brightest in his role as a prose stylist who made the world safe for first-person journalistic shenanigans. His underlying conservatism, as highlighted by his contemporaries, is part of the entry fee to his fan club. Radical Wolfe lays out the story frankly, with benefits.

Opens in theaters Sept. 15.

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