Tom Wolfe is not just one of history’s most finely-tuned journo-novelists, he’s a weaponizer of invented language and punctuation. Wolfe’s a well-attired Southern Gentlemen — call him a Good Ol’ Boy, but know he created that phrase — who wrote cutting satire that dissected the way writing and culture worked all while creating new ways of writing and looking at culture. An editor’s worst enemy, Wolfe brandished the most disreputable punctuation markers: the exclamation mark; the ellipses; and an over-abundance of semi-colons. To read writing like that, you have to unlearn what you know about how writing works. You’ve just gotta read it in Tom Wolfe’s often-imitated cadence and abandon preconceptions about how that experience would usually go.
What Tom Wolfe did is invigorating for any writer. Even his critics seemed to bristle at his informalities, knowing that he was writing with such verve that he was somehow beyond reproach, even as he sunk his literary teeth into his contemporaries with such razor-sharp precision that he always left a mark. He’d never just call the hackneyed writer hackneyed. Instead, he’d go for the whole industry’s jugular, implying that all Feature writers and newsmen were in faux-competition with one another, none of them wanting to elevate their positions, and all of them forsaking actual reportage for their dreams of novel writing.
Wolfe’s writing made him an immediate star. He wrote directly from the perspective of where he was from, initially writing pieces that turned stock car racers into modern folk heroes. Wolfe was able to hang in the gutters and experientially write pieces about all walks of life, from the Deadheads to the guilt-ridden rich. From his very conservative position of opposition politics, Wolfe dissected the Vanities, the monied Northern folks, working apart the contradictions of their lifestyle, and leaving in his wake, a repopularizing of letters from the American South.
The new documentary Radical Wolfe — by Richard Dewey, adapted from a Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis and narrated by Jon Hamm — creates an agile chronological lens through which to view Wolfe’s colorful career. The documentary is secure in providing a wide-angled view of the author’s work, necessarily lending as much time and flavor to Wolfe’s boundary-pushing essays as to his very famous novels. Dewey understands that these pieces are parts of the same story. You cannot get to Wolfe’s most indelible and popular novels like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), without understanding that these works are part-and-parcel with the style of New Journalism that Wolfe invigorated with life.
This being the first full-length exploration of Wolfe, it also feels like a complete work. Documentaries about artists really have two choices: whether they want to focus on specific arcs and moments in an artists life that tell a full story or whether they want to cohesively tell the story from all the corners available. Going with the latter route can be a dicey proposition, especially when there are such disparate cross-sections of work to cover. Radical Wolfe doesn’t mind spending time where it needs to, however, and gives about even coverage of Wolfe’s striking fashion choices, always sporting the white suits prominent in the South, but pointedly wearing them in New York, and his contribution to letters, which are so eclectic, occasionally problematic, and wide-reaching that you really need a whole novel of your own to scratch the surface. As a smart work of editing, Radical Wolfe doesn’t miss any essential beats and, while a documentary could be sourced from any one of the topics it sometimes glides over, there’s a sense that this first full one has to do the hard and necessary work of providing a sufficient biography.
Tom Wolfe isn’t my kind of writer. A tad too conservative for me. His writing, as a form of rebellion against how writing was going at the time, though, still feels captivating to any audience. Maybe it’s better to know Wolfe this way. To watch his profile and not think too much about his work discrediting fundraising for Black Panthers, the risky flamboyance of his forward-facing Southern persona, or how terrifying his use of punctuation had been. Maybe you just want to know Tom Wolfe this way. Read a couple of articles and watch the documentary and you can begin to piece together a fuller picture, anyway, of a captivating wordsmith who always swam against the tide, and showed both journalists and novelists what they are missing from each other. Worst case is the Southern Gentleman in the great white suit will frustrate you in a big way with all his contradictions and make it wholly entertaining for you all the while. You’ve just gotta find out which one it will be and Radical Wolfe is the most accessible way to find out.