With Tom Wolfe, the most important thing was what you didn't see. What you saw, of course, was the white suit. Perhaps no American writer in history was more identified with an article of clothing. The outfit -- flashy, unique, an unapologetic plea for attention -- seemed symbolic, too. Wolfe's writing, with its English teacher's nightmare of ALL CAPS and excessive use of exclamation points!!! -- stood out from the crowd as much as he did.
But to focus on the suit, or even the punctuation, was to miss the point of Wolfe's genius. He was, above all, a brilliant reporter -- a meticulous and patient observer of the chaotic world around him. Wolfe, who died Monday at 88, was the rarest bird in American letters, a master of both nonfiction and fiction, an achievement that his distinctive plumage served sometimes to obscure.
Consider, for example, his 1979 masterpiece, "The Right Stuff." The first American astronauts, from the Mercury program, were almost forgotten by the time Wolfe turned his eye to them. But by steeping himself in the material, Wolfe saw that the astronauts were not even the best story about the era. That role, and Wolfe's book, belonged to Chuck Yeager, the slow-talking West Virginian whose feats as a test pilot made the work of the astronauts (who were just "spam in a can") look small.
The phrase -- "the right stuff" -- has become such a clich- that it's easy to forget that Wolfe brought it to us, just a few decades ago.
The setting of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" -- the rarefied precincts of Manhattan's Upper East Side -- could not have differed more from the dusty Air Force bases of "The Right Stuff." But in that novel, published in 1987, Wolfe hilariously and wisely revealed both the upside and the underside of the Reagan years among the rich.
Wolfe didn't have to venture far to research this book, because even though he never lost the soft Virginia accent of his native commonwealth, he spent most of his life in the belly of the cosseted beast.
Two of Wolfe's lesser-known works revealed the range of his sophistication. In "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus to Our House," he offered pointed critiques of, respectively, modern painting and modern architecture. In these amusing works -- Wolfe could not not be funny -- he cast his reportorial eye on the contemporary art scene and found a truth that others preferred to avoid: A lot of this stuff was pretty ugly.
Wolfe turned crankier in his later years and works, and his high standards sometimes bled into snobbism. He never had much interest in, or insights about, people who were of different races and backgrounds than his own. But his gifts and great works will endure, for the worlds he revealed and skewered, and for the many joys his inimitable style gave to generations of grateful readers.