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Tom Wolfe : Author Who Rewrote the Way Journalists Write Talks About 1st Novel at Chapman

May 16, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

As Tom Wolfe was sitting in a Bronx courtroom one afternoon watching a criminal trial unfold, the judge suddenly looked at his watch, noted that it was 5:30 p.m. and called a 15-minute recess.

As the judge left the bench, the court clerk leaped to his feet and yelled: "Yoh! Yoh!" Off scrambled the prosecutor, the defense attorney and assorted court personnel.

Thus Wolfe, who was observing the incongruous coming together of the upper and lower classes in New York's courts for his latest book, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," discovered that this was the appointed hour for court personnel to "circle the wagons"; they retrieved their cars from nearby parking lots and parked them curb side on streets immediately surrounding the courthouse in the Bronx's 44th police precinct--a decaying, crime-infested section of New York City.

"Otherwise, these people would never make it to their cars in safety," Wolfe recalled last Thursday before an overflow audience of 300 at Chapman College in Orange. "Nobody dares walk two blocks after dark in this area."

Founder of 'New Journalism'

Nearly two decades after helping found the "New Journalism"--which has forever altered what we read in newspapers and magazines (the "nonfiction short story"), books (the "nonfiction novel") and see on television (docudramas)--Wolfe still considers himself just a journeyman journalist ferreting out the facts as illustrated by his reporting forays into the Bronx.

To this task he brings a keen eye for observation, a fine ear for the varied speech patterns of America's different social classes and a dogged determination to uncover the "facts" about the multifaceted subjects he has chronicled in his 30-year career.

"When I explained 'New Journalism,' " Wolfe said in recalling his early attempts to define what it meant, "it always came out as being half-fact, half-fiction, subjective writing, instead of what it really is: very thorough reporting using every effective device known to prose, including what is usually associated with the novel."

Writing First Novel

During his four-hour visit to Chapman last week, in which he gave a lecture to a receptive audience of 300, answered questions from a panel of Chapman students for a cable television show, fielded questions from students in a journalism class and was interviewed by The Times, Wolfe argued that not only is fact stranger than fiction, real life is more revealing about the human heart than fiction ever can be.

The author, who described himself to the theater crowd as a "naturalist, a realist," has written "The Right Stuff," "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," "Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," "Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine," "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby" and "From Bauhaus to Our House." His work in progress, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," is his first stab at a book of fiction.

When Wolfe burst on the national scene 20 years ago in articles on pop culture for New York magazine (then a supplement to the Sunday edition of the New York Herald Tribune), fellow journalists accused him of bastardizing journalism and distorting the truth.

Critics deplored his introduction of fictional techniques to journalism--the use of interior monologues, extended scenes, dialogue and a strong narrative voice. He took seriously the pop movements of the moment and dissected them in minute detail; he summed up whole eras and phenomena with clever catch phrases--"radical chic," "the me decade," "the right stuff."

For an article about the socialite Baby Jane Holzer, he began as if he were a camera panning a concert hall audience from overhead:

\o7 "Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puff sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks, elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater.

"Aren't they super marvelous!"

\f7 While Wolfe's writing is flamboyant, Wolfe himself is not. He projects an image more like his own description in "From Bauhaus to Our House" of the architect Robert Venturi--"soft-spoken, cool, ironic, urbane, highly educated, charming, witty, just the right amount of reticence, sophisticated . . . , able to mix plain words with scholarly ones."

Nattily Attired

The only thing startling about Wolfe in person is his attire. Known as the fashion plate of American letters, Wolfe, 54, had clothed his 6-foot, 175-pound frame in a light-gray silk jacket, a red silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket, a double-breasted white vest set off by the chain from his gold pocket watch, white shirt, a white tie with gray polka dots, white silk slacks, red socks with bold white stripes and white shoes. With his bemused, boyish face, blue eyes and light-brown hair, he looked like a cross between a carnival barker and a dandy.

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