How did he get away with it? Today, though apparently not in 1959 when Tom Wolfe joined The Washington Post, routinely missing deadlines is not the route to advancement in the newspaper trade. Nor is the sort of copy Wolfe was filing for the New York Herald Tribune two years later when he was on the brink of becoming the flag carrier for New Journalism.
Consider his over-cooked snippet about the weather, "a mean, low-down cold streak, made up of practically every foul blow in the book", or his observation of drunken college students, "with eyes like poached eggs engraved with a road map of West Virginia". Marc Weingarten quotes these early examples of Wolfe's "Technicolor vernacular" in Who's Afraid of Tom Wolfe?, a dense and mournful account of the last great flowering of US print journalism that endured for little more than a decade.
It is true, as Weingarten says, that with Vietnam, political assassinations, rock, drugs, hippies, yippies, yahoos and Nixon, the time was one of extraordinary upheaval. But he cannot be serious, and he does the "traditional" media a disservice, when he suggests that their reporting tools were inadequate to chronicle events. The idea that the age of big stories ended in the mid-1970s is the unfortunate, cock-eyed conclusion to this exhaustive examination of the work and characters of Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and the rest. Yet the book also points to the seeds of destruction within the New Journalism movement. Journalism that reads like fiction and rings with the truth of reported fact is one thing, but when writers insert themselves into their copy, describe and quote people who are composite characters, and even write what subjects are thinking, readers justifiably become confused, or even suspicious. The movement's loss of traditional objectivity and detachment was a matter of mainstream controversy at the time -- and still is today.
Entertaining as it was, this school of journalism left a persistent public perception that journalists are about as trustworthy as second-hand car salesmen. Towards the end, Weingarten notes, the temptation to embellish the facts could be overwhelming.
And while the author complains about television's obsession with celebrity today, many of his subjects were themselves literary rock stars, willing to be profiled by their more workaday colleagues. They were, though, a brave bunch who wrote sparkling, insightful copy, unswervingly dedicated to the presentation of facts as art.
Wolfe, east-coast author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, wrote of California's drug and car cultures as an outsider brimming with exuberance for the west coast's new "statuspheres" and the antics of its youth. Joan Didion, a Californian, saw only chaos and disorder.
While Wolfe revelled with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and his Merry Pranksters, Didion, in San Francisco, observed drugdazed hippies and runaways.
In Los Angeles, she found lonely, hopeless housewives.
While the group's writing styles varied widely, Weingarten highlights their many shared characteristics. They recognised that tape recorders and prepared questions tended to damp the spontaneity of subjects, and chose in the main to observe and listen, allowing interviewees to find their own way through their narratives.
Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches - from Vietnam - was a master of sitting on the sidelines, observing. He once said he had no journalistic instinct, training or discipline. He also believed the New Journalism tenet that "conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it."
And he had little time for many of his press corps colleagues, "some of them incredible fakes, fantastic backs who live so well on their expense accounts that they may never be able to adjust to peace". He sniffed at theories that the conflict was a "television war". Small screen coverage turned it into an element in America's "media wonderland", he said.
Forty years later, Dispatches is still in print. So are the works of other members of the movement -- by any standards established literary figures.
But most have produced little since. Wolfe, king of hyperbole, continues to write novels and Didion's elegant prose still flows. Hunter S. Thompson, the wackiest of all, shot himself this year. In a final show that fittingly recalled his verbal pyrotechnics, his ashes were dispersed in the Colorado air, borne aloft by fireworks.
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