ISSUE DATE: Nov. 2, 1998
The megayield critical and commercial success of The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987 made Tom Wolfe a rich and very gratified author indeed. That big, boisterous novel, his first, proved a point that he had been arguing, much to the annoyance of literary folks, for years: American fiction could still portray the hectic complexities of contemporary social life, could still capture the textures and rhythms of a seething modern city, if novelists would just leave their desks, maybe take a sabbatical from their professorships in creative writing and go out and report on the fabulous stuff taking place all around them. But, Wolfe complained, most post-’60s U.S. novelists had simply abandoned the passing scene in favor of introspection or self-conscious artifice. They had ceded public reality to journalists, of whom Wolfe was a notable example (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff) before he invaded the House of Fiction and noisily threw open the windows.
After Bonfire, though, came the inevitable question. What next? Topping his first novel would be hard, the risk of failure and I-told-you-so reviews high. But Wolfe found the challenge irresistible. “I was 57,” he says, “and I thought the eight or nine years I’d spent on Bonfire had taught me what not to do the second time. So, I proceeded to make every blunder a beginning writer could stumble into.”
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