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Tom Wolfe, novelist and pioneer of New Journalism, dies at 87

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Novelist Tom Wolfe died on Monday after being hospitalized with an infection. (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/TNS)

Tom Wolfe loved American culture for all its excess. Groupies, doormen, hippies, astronauts, bankers and frat boys took on a magisterial presence in his writing, and if there was a hint of hypocrisy in their actions, then all the better.

Wolfe reveled in worlds where people stood tall and acted with extravagance and swagger. He often joined the parade himself, author-turned-celebrity in his cream-colored suit, walking stick in hand.

One of the most conspicuous voices in American letters, Wolfe died Monday at a Manhattan hospital, according to his agent, Lynn Nesbit. He was 87. He had been hospitalized with an infection, according to the Guardian.

“Tom was a singular talent,” said his friend Gay Talese. “He was an extraordinarily active reporter whose unique prose was supported on a foundation of solid research.”

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born in Richmond, Va., on March 2, 1931. His mother was a landscape designer, and his father was an agronomist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and an editor for an agricultural magazine. He had a sister who was five years younger than him.

At Washington and Lee University, he helped edit the campus newspaper and co-founded its literary quarterly.

He received a doctorate from Yale in 1957 in American Studies, and after sending out applications to 53 newspapers, took a job as a reporter for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts.

After three years in Massachusetts and two years with the Washington Post, he headed to the New York Herald Tribune where he would show up each day in a $200 cream-colored suit, which he wore as “a harmless form of aggression” against New Yorkers unaccustomed to seeing lighter shades worn during winter.

Wolfe said the style had an advantage. “If people see that you are an outsider,” he said, “they will come up and tell you things.”

Wolfe dressed up his stories with scenes, dialogue and a raucous point of view that soon distinguished the New Journalism, a phrase credited to writer Pete Hamill and whose practitioners included Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Talese.

“I had the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that I was doing things no one had ever done in journalism,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe got his start in 1963 with a story that he almost couldn’t write. He had gone to California to report on renegade car designers working out of garages in Burbank and Lynwood. After racking up a $750 tab at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he returned to New York and stared at his typewriter, unable to find the right words.

Ten hours and 49 pages later, Wolfe had “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

The story later became a centerpiece for a collection of essays that established his national reputation as a writer who didn’t use the English language so much as he detonated it. Allusions, dramatic asides, neologisms and flamboyant punctuation became the hallmarks of his style.

Surfers, sitting on the edge of the break, were like “Phrygian sacristans.”

Chuck Yeager, punching through the sound barrier above the Mojave, saw the sky turn “deep purple and all at once the stars and the moon came out — and the sun shone at the same time.”

Surfers, sitting on the edge of the break, were like “Phrygian sacristans.”

Chuck Yeager, punching through the sound barrier above the Mojave, saw the sky turn “deep purple and all at once the stars and the moon came out — and the sun shone at the same time.”

Wolfe brought to his stories techniques often reserved for fiction and dispensed candid and often droll commentary on the obsessions and passing trends of American society.

The author of 15 books, fiction and nonfiction, Wolfe is credited with such phrases as “radical chic,” “the me-decade” and “the right stuff.”

“What Tom did with words is what French Impressionists did with color,” said Larry Dietz, editor and friend.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

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