Tom Wolfe is the reason I am here, writing a blog post on a website that also tells you about my narrative nonfiction books. Tom Wolfe taught me that there’s a story behind everything, as long as you get the details and the drama and the passion and then tell it with all of that. Just reading Tom Wolfe made my writing better. Some have argued that his writing was over the top, too much. Somehow for me, aspiring to that too-much ended up being just enough.
Tom Wolfe died yesterday, and I am sorry we won’t get any more insanely long sentences—pages-long sentences!—from him. Before the Internet and texting required us to constantly use exclamation points, just to convey that we weren’t angry or depressed, this man was single-handedly keeping the exclamation point off of the endangered list.
His book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test hit me in my early 20s, a time when a book could have a sprawling effect on my life. Suddenly all I wanted to write at my daily newspaper job was long, involved narrative nonfiction … New Journalism! My poor editors. They were like, “Please go cover that house fire. Please go cover that Planning Commission meeting.” But I did eventually persuade them to let me spend several months at the Ronald McDonald House in Loma Linda, California, following the lives of families who had uprooted themselves from other states, even Canada, to stay there so their children could be treated for cancer at the nearby, world-class hospital. It was a defining moment in my career. I still remember that I had a line about how one mom looked as tired as her faded jeans, and my editors loved it. This is all Mr. Wolfe’s doing.
Because of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I also read everything else Wolfe had written thus far, then moved onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (a major character in Acid Test), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (featuring a character based on Kesey), and then all of Kerouac, who became another idol (and, at the time, because I didn’t know any better) an imaginary boyfriend for me. I became obsessed with San Francisco’s Haight Street. I almost went to grad school in San Francisco because of that obsession. I can still smell the pachouli.
Instead, I moved to New York City and became an entertainment writer, but that didn’t end my Wolfean trajectory. Eventually I turned my TV expertise toward writing books, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything except writing narrative nonfiction in that vein. Wolfe taught me to love telling stories, to find them in everything. This is what I do with my life now.
May he rest in the greatest white suit there is.