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Why every nonfiction writer once wanted to be Tom Wolfe

“THAT’S GOOD THINKING THERE, COOL BREEZE, COOL BREEZE… sitting next to me on the stamped metal bottom of the open back part of a pickup truck… Dipping and rising and rolling on these rotten springs like a boat…”

You’d be excused for thinking these were the opening lines of a novel, or notes jotted down in a journal or on a cocktail napkin. Instead they are the first lines of Tom Wolfe’s 1968 nonfiction book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his personal account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the larger drug culture of the 1960s and the radical ways America was transforming.

The book is also remembered as perhaps the most famous example of what was then an evolving literary movement, genre and style: “The New Journalism,” of which Wolfe was pioneer and practitioner, along with Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

Nonfiction could be reported and true, argued those writers, while borrowing the techniques of literary fiction: repetition (“Cool Breeze, Cool Breeze”), simile (“dipping and rising and rolling… like a boat”), or even starting the book’s action in media res (“That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze”… Wait, who is Cool Breeze? Who is talking here? And where are we?). In the case of Wolfe, his writing showed that nonfiction writing could also be flamboyant, even “pyrotechnic.”

Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, started his career as a local newspaper journalist in Springfield, Massachusetts, and went on to write more than a dozen books of both fiction and nonfiction, peering deeply into American culture over several decades. His 1979 nonfiction book “The Right Stuff,” which followed a group of astronauts the U.S. space program, was written in a totally different style than “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,” but one that, once again, matched its subject matter. “The Right Stuff” also became a major motion picture.

To understand Wolfe’s writing, go back to his first foray into experimental journalism: a 1963 Esquire story about hot-rod car culture in Southern California, which he filed as almost stream-of-conscious notes to an editor who encouraged him to publish as-is. Its first line gives an indication of the overall piece: “”There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!)”

Readers were both perplexed and amazed. And Wolfe set off from there.

“There was a period of time where every single nonfiction writer was trying to write like Tom Wolfe,” said Susan Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of “The Orchid Thief. On Monday, Orlean tweeted that Wolfe’s work — particularly “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” — changed her life and convinced her to write nonfiction, because she was “dazzled by the idea that you could really write like that about real things.”

“Because his style was so extreme, it suggested the most possibility,” he said. “No one had that kind of wild, musical feel that his work had.”

Wolfe could write circles around other writers, and he also reported on what others were missing. He was preoccupied in his writing with America’s obsession with status, and what that said about people.

In a 2008 interview with the NewsHour, Wolfe spoke of the importance of noting status details. “[It’s] the most important [thing] to spot in any situation you’re writing about,” he said. “What is the status line up, what are the rankings within the group.”

His book “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe said, was not actually a book about the space program but about the hierarchy among the astronauts. One of his best-known pieces, his 1970 essay in New York magazine, “Radical Chic: That Party At Lenny’s,” studied how celebrities and other cultural elites co-opted radical causes to raise their status. The piece tracked every outfit, vocal inflection, hairstyle, and other status indicator in the room. It also led to accusations from a member of the Black Panther Party that Wolfe’s depiction of them was racist.

Some of Wolfe’s novels eclipsed his journalism, particularly “Bonfire of the Vanities,” his 1987 satirical novel about greed, power and the mayhem of New York in the 1980s, told through the eyes of a bond trader, district attorney and journalist. The novel also became a movie.

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles wrote Monday that Wolfe saved American fiction, because he “crashed into a literary scene that had grown timid, self-absorbed and, yes, dull,” urging writers to stop writing from inside bedrooms and instead get out on the street.

In a 1998 interview with the NewsHour for his novel “A Man in Full,” Wolfe said his top concern was “to bring people inside of these amazing worlds that exist in the United States today.”

“He was the ultimate anthropologist,” Orlean said. “He had an extraordinary reporter’s eye. He was a fabulous reporter, could sit and watch a situation unfold and come away really understanding the dynamic of the people involved…. You can be stylish but unless you have the right guts of the story, it’s just going to be chatter. His reporting is what made him so exceptional.”

On the NewsHour tonight, hear more from Orlean about Tom Wolfe’s work and influence.

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