AT SOME convenient point in any morning, Tom Wolfe would put on his working clothes. Over a silk shirt, maybe ultramarine, maybe striped, he knotted a silk tie. A proper Windsor knot! No plastic cheaters, like Marshal McLuhan! Then a perfectly tailored white suit of linen or silk tweed…with double-breasted vest…dark blue trim of the matching square peeking from the breast pocket…cream socks....leather spectator spat boots…the summer passeggiata gear of Richmond, Virginia, his home town, transposed to New York. A glance in the mirror—the face fine, a china doll’s, with hardly a suggestion of shaving. The underlip puppet-stiff, but the hair floppy in the English style, falling almost to the intertragic notch of his ear.

Work was not far to find, across a few dozen metres of parquet flooring, past orchids and butter-yellow sofas, to his study in his apartment on the Upper East Side. There stood his desk. His desk! A brass-galleried horseshoe in light oak sporting silver inkwells in the shape of top hats, paperweights of millefiori Murano glass, an apothecary’s balance scale, family pictures in silver frames, a silver-footed chalice of blue Bohemian glass and a figurine of Bugs Bunny. At 90 degrees to the command centre of the desk was a typewriter with the blank paper set. Ready to write! Ten pages a day! Triple-spaced! Forcing himself to do it! But every so often—he would pause—smoothly swivel—to consult his huge thumb-indexed and stand-mounted Webster’s for “tabescent” or “prognathous”.

On this typewriter, or its predecessors, with shoulders braced and pinkie finger delicately raised, he banged out the excoriating articles and books that made his reputation. As leader of the New Journalism in the 1960s he piled up detail, drama and the flash of fiction to tell of trips, bus and otherwise, of the LSD crowd across America (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”), the business of customising cars in Los Angeles (“The Kandy-Koloured Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”), and status battles among pilots and astronauts in the first space programme (“The Right Stuff”). Status and power! The key to how the human beast worked! The motive for all activity in America, the new Rome, a nation so prodigiously wealthy and militarily mighty it would have made Caesar twitch.

Nostalgie de la boue

In college he had studied Max Weber—imbibed his theories whole and gratefully, letting them seep through him like hot coffee. Men were not individuals so much as social products…inevitably tied to their race and class…but struggling! Fighting to impress, to rise! And nowhere more than in New York, where he lived ever after coming to work on the Herald Tribune in 1962, wallowing too in the city of unbridled appetites and ambition, of overbuilt ugliness, shoving oneupmanship…his favourite that party in 1970 at the Park Avenue duplex of Lenny Bernstein, in the days when status required nostalgie de la boue, real revolutionaries at your soirée, hence Black Panthers in leather pieces and wild Afros gobbling tiny morsels of Roquefort rolled in crushed nuts on gadrooned silver platters…Frisson of bomb-throwing danger!!! Delicious counterpoint! Radical Chic!

On that typewriter too he had written the Great American Novel. For at just the moment when American society had become so wild, bizarre, Hog-stomping and Baroque that it cried out to be chronicled by a Zola or a Balzac, the novel had died. Those old bone-piles of American literature, Mailer, Updike and Irving, were writing psychological fantasies or books of otherworldly preciousness. Never left their studies! But he embarked on a novel as detailed as his journalism. A novel of the real world. From the trading floors of Wall Street to the police holding-pens of the Bronx he told the story of Sherman McCoy, bond-trader and Master of the Universe, and his fall from grace. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was everyone’s vanity. New York’s. America’s. Sherman in the stinking cells…his terrifying stumbles into the black netherworld…baying money fever…racism on every side…no redemption…

There were more novels, further investigations of the social mores of Atlanta (“A Man in Full”), of sex and society at university (“I am Charlotte Simmons”) and of immigrants in Miami (“Back to Blood”). The research took years. Each item of cheap clothing was traced to its store, each chair and lamp surveyed and each remark rendered in its exact patois. “If you ain’t off’n’at roof, you best be growing some wangs, ’cause they’s gonna be a load a 12-gauge budshot haidin’ up yo’ ayus!” His eye and ear were so meticulously malicious that he surely loathed the world, but he was courtly…spoke softly…had a wife and children…opened doors for ladies…and was every inch a WASP southern conservative, holding the ring for God, Country and—usually—the Republican Party.

And he retained the suit. Always the suit, even with the perpetually stoned Merry Pranksters in “Acid Test”. Even in barracks, sagebrush, slums. A necktie was his pride. So was the green spiral-top steno notebook in which, like some exquisitely coutured man from Mars, he jotted down everything around him in shorthand with a ballpoint pen. Ken Kesey, leader of the Pranksters, once told him to put his tools away and Be Here! But he already Was! Ecce vates! Prophet and seer of the age!