Tom Wolfe in 1968 in Manhattan. He was known for his verbal pyrotechnics in books like “The Right Stuff,” not to mention his sartorial flair.
Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Mr. Wolfe had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.
In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.
But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”
It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms.
His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.
Only on Wall Street could a guy named Sherman feel like He-Man.
Sherman McCoy, like so much in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece “Bonfire of the Vanities,” is near-perfect. He was the archetypal 1980s bond trader, with such delusions of superhuman powers that he saw his own image in his daughter’s plastic, muscle-bound He-Man action figures, fancying himself one of the “Masters of the Universe.”
Wolfe, who died Monday, long outlived McCoy, a denizen of Wall Street’s pre-digital age. But the character and the book represent one of the best-drawn portraits of a financier since probably Theodore Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood some 75 years earlier.
Sherman McCoy. His name sounds even whiter than one of Tom Wolfe’s suits. And that’s the point. McCoy is the white whale. And nearly every character in the book is an Ahab hoping to harpoon him: the rabble-rousing Rev. Bacon (modeled on Al Sharpton), the assistant district attorney, and the tabloid hack covering — as well as creating — the story. It is McCoy’s whiteness as much as his whaleness that is his undoing.
At the novel’s opening, McCoy seems to have it all: the beautiful wife, daughter, mistress and Park Avenue apartment. No wonder he relates to his daughter’s action figures.
They looked like Norse gods who lifted weights, and they had names such as Dracon, Ahor, Mangelred, and Blutong. They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys. Yet one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe. There was … no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul.
In another wonderful scene that’s an homage to Dickens’s “Dombey and Son,” McCoy’s daughter asks him to explain what it means to be a bond trader — and what bonds even are.
“A bond is a way of loaning people money. Let’s say you want to build a road, and it’s not a little road but a big highway, like the highway we took up to Maine last summer. Or you want to build a big hospital. Well, that requires a lot of money, more money than you could ever get by just going to a bank. So what you do is, you issue what are called bonds.”
“You build roads and hospitals, Daddy? That’s what you do?”
It only gets worse from there, when McCoy tries to explain how he earns such a good living from this enterprise. “Yes. Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that.”
In the novel, a sort of stock jobber’s book of Job, McCoy loses everything and is devoured by the city. It reads like revenge porn for anyone ever screwed over by Wall Street. Just as markets can turn south at any moment, McCoy experiences a catastrophic crash.
And yet, as the writer Michael Lewis noted in 1996, bond traders admired much about McCoy, and even fancied themselves fellow Masters of the Universe.
But the real McCoys barely made it out of the 1980s, Lewis observed. “The role of Chief Business Villain is now played not by the financier but by the C.E.O., who pays himself millions while laying off his workers.”