Tom Wolfe has died, but his zingers are eternal

Prince of exclamation points.
Prince of exclamation points.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Cooper
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Tom Wolfe, the acerbic American satirist and bristling contrarian, has died. The author of Bonfire of the VanitiesThe Right Stuff, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was 88.

Wolfe was considered one of the founding writers of the intensely subjective form of journalism sometimes called New Journalism, the métiers of Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. Wolfe was also known for his inventive, cutting quips and for his idiomatic contributions to contemporary English.

In his fiction and journalism, the Richmond, Virginia-born writer vividly captured various pockets of American society, often inventing or popularizing new language to describe the characters he encounters. His 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, is about a megalomaniac Upper Eastsider who fancies himself throughout the book as a “Master of the Universe.” His wife’s desperate middle-aged friends are ”social x-rays,” so thin and empty, they’re merely skeletons; younger blonde women looking to be second wives are “Lemon Tarts.” Elsewhere, a cop is a “great slab of meat with a mustache” and other people are variously ”yellow shitbirds” and “bald-headed worms.”

Not all Wolfe’s signature phrases were zingers. The use of “hemorrhage” to describe the outflow of one’s money is found throughout Bonfire of the Vanities, contemporaneous with its first uses in English.

Wolfe is also credited for a role in popularizing the phrase “push the envelope” in his 1979 nonfiction book about astronauts, The Right Stuff. He uses the phrase “pushing the outside of the envelope,” where the aeronautic “envelope” is the limits of a plane’s performance. Today we use the expression as general way to describe innovating or extending the limits of what’s possible.

The same book, with its subsequent 1983 film, is thought to have popularized the phrase “screw the pooch,” meaning make a mistake. (Wolfe notes, late in The Right Stuff, a flight was a success—”Since the pooch proved to be unscrewable.”)

Wolfe also coined the term “radical chic” in his 1970 criticism of a benefit for the Black Panthers, and the “Me Decade” in a 1976 essay about the self-gazing 1970s.

Wolfe’s later fiction was met with mixed reviews. His 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, in particular, was criticized for being out of touch and for having flat characters. Perhaps by then his Wolfe-ian phrases—such as the liberally used “cum dumpster” to describe college aged women—didn’t help.