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The Bonfire Extinguished

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, described Tom Wolfe’s death as the “passing of an era.”

He was known for coining phrases such as “radical chic”—a derogatory term for pretentious liberals—and “the Me Decade,” which described the self-indulgence of the 1970s.

Wolfe once told the Wall Street Journal: “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.”

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America—I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

But Wolfe is arguably best known for “The Right Stuff” (which became an enormously successful film) and his novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” (which did not) as well as his bespoke white suits. He died on Monday in a Manhattan.

Wolfe’s death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Wolfe had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York for 56 years since becoming a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune.

Wolfe’s follow-up novel, “A Man in Full,” (1998) was a runaway hit about rise and fall of Charlie Croker, a 60-year-old former Georgia Tech football star turned millionaire real estate developer.

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer asserted in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great—his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.” Wolfe was 88 years old.

 

Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.