When I started working for newspapers 45 years ago, Tom Wolfe turned me on to something.
It wasn’t a drug, though it did alter my writing sensibility, permanently.
“There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby…” was the name of one of his early pieces that went a long way in establishing New Journalism.
That essay about the custom-car world of Southern California, along with wildly entertaining takes by Wolfe on American culture, – such as “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers and Radical Chic” — showed me and a whole generation that – wow — this journalism can be fun!!!
(Yeah, the dread never-use exclamation point was not only allowed, but encouraged.)
Wolfe and other members of the New Journalism movement, such as Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and reformed fictioneer Truman Capote, who wrote the sensationally received “In Cold Blood,” a nonfiction novel, ignited the most innovative aspects of what could be called — and I am — the Golden Age of Newspapering — circa 1970 to 2005.
Wolfe died May 14 at age 88. The man in his trademark white suit (a la Mark Twain, except tailored just so), left his style on what I have been involved in for decades.
I have had Wolfeian fun (if you’ll forgive the comparison) and, from time to time, continue.
Following are excerpts from one of my first pieces attempting to convey what Wolfe called “the joys of detailed realism and its strange powers.”
Here is how I began my 1,400-word report on the Rolling Stones’ concert in Memphis Memorial Stadium on July 4, 1975 in triple digit heat:
An emergency medical technician lays a cold, green oxygen bottle between the young girl’s legs and puts the clear plastic piece over her nose and mouth. Her bare midriff is fish-belly white. Her eyes are closed.
In the 1970s Mick Jagger of the Stones has emerged from the shadow of the defunct Beatles as the Nijinsky of Cavort. Jagger (the name sounds like a threat), androgynous street-punk extraordinaire . . .
The plan was for the Stones to arrive onstage astride elephants. It is said the next day that Mick’s elephant would not climb a ramp onto the stage — and that is explained as the major cause of the delay which was to stretch to two-and-one-half hours.
The sun has fallen below the northwest side of the stands before the opening of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Mick flashes onstage in lavender cape, feather headdress, a red-and-white, figured two-piece jump suit—all the while coquettishly twirling a bamboo parasol in front of him in a parody of Chinese formality.
The rest of the Stones come on, plug in and blast out the first notes of “Honky Tonk Women.”
“I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
Cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.”
My piece in the Courier News of Blytheville, Ark. (of all places, you say? Not if you knew Hank Haines, the brilliant editor, publisher and encourager) was my first attempt to stretch the limits of feature writing, though sections with such subspecialities were part of the Golden Age, encouraging those with talent to spread their wings.
Before that era, it was all news, however hard or vacuous, with sports being about the only place for freedom of expression aside from spot criticism. The sports pages were fertile ground for greats such as Red Smith, Jim Murray and Grantland Rice and an untold number of others who broke free from the constraints of straight journalism, some eventually becoming, well, novelists.
Which is what Wolfe turned to, with his “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full,” though he never forgot his partner at the Big Dance.
That evolution – though that is not quite the right word since it suggests moving to a higher realm – is Wolfe’s way of showing what the art of the novel had turned its back on the real world out there, with all its outrages, fears and pretensions.
It was my dumb luck and good fortune not to have my creativity squelched by a tone-deaf first boss. That allowed me get a nomination for a Pulitzer for feature writing at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 10 years ago.
New Journalism – does it still live? Yes, though its descendants have different names: Long-form Writing, Creative Nonfiction and Narrative.
The DNA is still there. So is today’s world with all its excesses.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at email@example.com or (601) 364-1016.
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