The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

“He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

The 1962-3 New York City newspaper strike deprived the US metropolis’ inhabitants of broadsheets and tabloids for all of 114 days. The Daily News was the first paper to be shut down, followed by The New York Times, Post, Herald Tribune and a host of others when talks collapsed and the workers of the NY Typographical Union walked out.

The strike proved a boon to magazines. Amongst others, it begat the New York Review of Books – undoubtedly still one of the world’s finest literary journals and the preeminent redeeming feature of contemporary US culture. The strike also gave Tom Wolfe his first break. On leave from the shuttered New York Herald Tribune, he was asked to write an article for Esquire magazine on the lively hot rod scene of Southern California.

Struggling with the assignment and with a deadline looming large, Tom Wolfe sent his editor a letter explaining in great detail what he had wanted to write about the subject – but couldn’t. The editor, Byron Dobell, simply removed the “Dear Byron” from the top and published Wolfe’s letter – talis qualis – In the magazine. The reportage, breaching all journalistic style and convention, became the basis of There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby – Tom Wolfe’s literary debut and an instant classic.

In 1965, The New York Times described Mr Wolfe as “a genius who will do anything to get attention.” The reviewer drawing this conclusion was none other than Kurt Vonnegut who would go on to attain cult status with Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Mr Vonnegut was right on the mark: Tom Wolfe was set to surprise all and sundry with outrageous titles such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (an account of writer Ken Kesey’s LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip with a group of friends known as The Merry Pranksters), The Pump House Gang (on the 1960s surfers’ counterculture), Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (on the moneyed elite’s love affair with the Black Panther Party), and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine – a collection of essays loosely themed around the liberals’ well-known penchant for romanticising the plight of the poor.

After finding his literary groove, Tom Wolfe relentlessly pumped out remarkable reportage and gave rise to New Journalism, superimposing literary styles and techniques previously reserved for work of fiction on fact-based journalistic endeavours. His book on the astronauts of the Mercury space programme and the test pilots of Edwards Air Force Base living on the cutting edge of aeronautical research – The Right Stuff – was adapted for the silver screen in 1983. The eponymous movie received eight nominations for the Academy Awards and went on to claim four of them.

Tom Wolfe reached the apex of his career with his 1987 (debut) novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (also made into a successful movie) about the apparent lack of control people exercise over their own lives, regardless of riches or wisdom. The book narrates the painful fall of Sherman McCoy as he tumbles from Park Avenue to Skid Row and beyond.

The mixed reviews his next novel, A Man in Full, elicited erupted into a delicious literary row – if not brawl – pitching Tom Wolfe against titans as John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer who dared criticise his story-telling techniques. In return, Mr Wolfe reminded the “three stooges” – as he branded his antagonists – that while high-brow literature may have a place and function, it also fails to connect with, or engage, readers. In his review, Norman Mailer – an early adopter of New Journalism and cofounder of The Village Voice – couldn’t help notice that A Man in Full had sold well over 750,000 copies and concluded, magnanimously, that its author must be on to something. And so it is.

Title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
Author Tom Wolfe
ISBN 978-0-0994-7938-3

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