TOM PLATE WRITES — Tom Wolfe, who had little to say about Asia alone but whose novels and journalism had everything to do with how we all live today, on whatever continent, in this messed-up globalized world, was the love of magazine editors. He was famous among them for never being able to say ‘no’ to any editor’s story idea. He was just too nice. But he was also the heartburn of magazine editors because he rarely delivered on any of those ideas. This was not evil or willful but the product of the difficulty he had in disappointing anyone. But then, when the promised article never came back to the assigning editor in time, or ever, Tom, the American gentleman, would say, quite honestly and accurately: “I’m just really backed up with so many assignments!”
Mr Wolfe, is his elegant dress and deportment, was an icon of civility. But the large sprawling canvas on which he wrote endlessly and stylishly was of a world in demoralizing decline. His latest novel – Back to Blood – traces in fictional mode the retreat from civility and the return to tribalism. Yet while his substance is dark, the writing style is pure champagne. He was the most entertaining contemporary moralist you could ever read – today’s Trollope perhaps.
He was also one of the more overt apostles of the New Journalism. This was of the school of writers that desired intimacy with their characters rather than some phony measured ‘objective’ distance. The idea was to put you in the room of the action, as if in a sixth dimension, almost as a ghost present but unseen. This way, you could take it all in, not miss anything. Some of the great, then-contemporary exponents of the first important new wave of the new journalism included Gay Talese “Honor Thy Father’), Truman Capote (‘In Cold Blood’) and Aaron Latham (‘Urban Cowboy’).
As a frightfully young editor at New York Magazine, under the great if mercurial founding editor Clay Felker, I cannot claim I was privileged to know Tom well at all but I was privileged to observe him in full, especially at the Monday luncheon story meetings in Milton (Push Pin Studio) Glaser’s charming if semi-crumbling commercial townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side. Its top two floors housed the fledgling staff of kick-ass New York Magazine, which included many who were to drive and elevate magazine journalism for the next decade. Quickly I think of Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally; Silkwood) and Nick Pileggi (Wiseguy; Goodfellas) as first among equals.
Many of Tom Wolfe’s books morphed into movies of one sort or the other. Probably, the two most famous were ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’. Personally, my favorite book was ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” an American classic. As was Tom. He passed away on 14 May at the age of 88. He set a standard that I could not remotely equal but that truth by itself was always of some value so as to know I could never come close and thus should not display myself as a fool to even try. Or almost never try…..
Tom Plate, the founder of Asia Media International, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar and the author of 13 books, including one novel.