Today: 17.08.2018
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Tom Wolfe captured and caricatured New York City better than anyone.

Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at the age of 88, carried his Virginia accent with him for the rest of his days. He famously, or notoriously, dressed himself in a creamy white suit whose purpose seemed to be to say “Whatever I am, I am not one of you.” And yet Tom Wolfe was surely...
Time: 17:19     Date: 15.05.2018
Last US News - Opinion: Tom Wolfe captured and caricatured New York City better than anyone. NY Post 24 - US News

Wolfe arrived in New York in 1962 to write for a magazine called . . . New York. Almost immediately, he achieved an understanding of the workings of this city and its elite few writers before him ever even began to glimpse. He had Edith Wharton’s cold-eyed capacity for portraying the triumphs of the undeserving, John O’Hara’s exquisite sense of the invisible but immovable power of social stratification, and Damon Runyon’s ability to mythologize the third-rate.

Wolfe was the rarest of birds — a satirist who was not an exaggerator. In his 1987 masterpiece, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Wolfe’s indelible caricatures of Manhattan society (the bone-thin “social X-rays” eating a lettuce leaf at lunch, the “lemon Tarts” who replaced the social X-rays as the second wives) were only caricatures because the people he was describing had themselves hardened into caricatures.

His pitiless gaze was deployed to immortal effect in his 1970 essay “Radical Chic,” wherein he simply described a party thrown at Leonard Bernstein’s apartment to raise funds for the Black Panthers. If a greater journalistic portrait of New York City exists, in any era, I don’t know what it might be.

Wolfe’s primary targets were the limousine liberals (a term he popularized in the piece) panting at the supposed authenticity of these original gansta political radicals and their ludicrous effort to bring violent revolution to overthrow the very society that had showered Bernstein and his friends with riches and comfort and fame and influence beyond all reason.

Wolfe shows us Bernstein talking at Panther Don Cox beside his glorious grand piano: “ ‘When you walk into this house, into this building’ — and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front — ‘when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!’”

But there are finely etched portraits too of the people at the party who weren’t under the Panther sway. He quotes Barbara Walters challenging a Panther: “I’m talking as a white woman who has a white husband, who is a capitalist, or an agent of capitalists, and I am, too, and I want to know if you are to have your freedom, does that mean we have to go!”

In response to which, Wolfe takes out his caricaturist’s quill and writes: “Barbara Walters and her husband, Lee Guber, a producer, up against the wall in the cellar in Ekaterinburg.” That is where the family of the last Russian czar was murdered by Lenin’s communists.

“The Bonfire of the Vanities,” of course, set a fictional version of a Bernstein neighbor — a Master of the Universe banker — on a literal collision course with the racial politics of 1980s New York. He gets his comeuppance for his vanity, and pretty much so does everyone else in this Hogarthian book. In the end, as the Prince says in “Romeo and Juliet,” all are punished.

What saves Wolfe’s work from descending into nihilism is the extraordinary American exuberance of his prose — his work reads as if Huck Finn grew up and went to Yale and got a Ph.D (as Wolfe did) before realizing he could not be “sivilized” to stand in front of a classroom and just teach. He needed to light out for the uncivilized territories of the five boroughs, where the American elite spent and continue to spend their lives playing status games they cannot win.

We shall not see Tom Wolfe’s like again.

Opinion

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Opinion

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Living

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Business

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Metro

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Sport

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