Kicking Down the Door, Part 1

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

Tom Wolfe was a newspaper reporter with a hankering to liven up nonfiction writing, then considered the sober sibling to freewheeling fiction. In 1962, Wolfe got hired to write for Esquire on the hot rod culture in Southern California. He hung out in the milieu, did his usual expert reporting, but couldn’t find his way into writing the article.

The day before the deadline, the editor told Wolfe to just send his notes and he’d find someone to forge them into something usable. Wolfe stayed up all night, pouring out his notes, ignoring all conventions of journalistic writing. Like this:

Dick Dale, rigged out in Byronic silk shirt and blue cashmere V-neck sweater and wraparound sunglasses, singer’s mufti U.S.A., has one cord with a starter button, while a bouffant nymphet from Newport, named Sherma, Sherma of the Capri pants, has the other one.

The editor liked what he saw and published the piece pretty much as is, with the title: “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Readers loved it. 

From there, Wolfe went hot-rodding through nonfiction, penning intensely researched nonfiction books and articles (“Radical Chic,” The Right Stuff, etc.) that leaped to life with high-octane prose that gave readers a wildly entertaining time. From The Right Stuff:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’…

Wolfe (and some cohorts) invented the so-called New Journalism, where nonfiction grabbed the license to use the literary pizazz of fiction, their work influencing such current nonfiction writers as Isabel Wilkerson and David Grann.

Wolfe dressed like a dandy, with white bespoke suits, and he loved poking sacred cows, as well as overusing exclamation marks!!!!!!!

In 1987, he topped his own derring-do by writing a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, that was like a piece of journalism turned into a rushing subway train rife with greed, vanity, racism, and the race for status in New York City. I remember riding the subway around that time and about a third of the people in any given car were reading the book—reading what was happening right around us.

It seemed Wolfe was having a grand time with his attire and writing, but he found them both exhausting. Kicking doors down isn’t easy. Nor should it be.

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