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Tom Wolfe

Born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1930, novelist-journalist Tom Wolfe is best known as the author of the novels, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998), as well as of the classic nonfiction books, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979).  His father was an agricultural scientist who also edited an agricultural magazine called the Southern Planter

Wolfe became a writer, he once noted, not so much because of a desire to create as a desire to emulate his father.  "As far as I was concerned, my father was a man who sat at his desk writing with a pencil on a yellow legal pad.  Two weeks later his not terribly legible handwriting would reappear as smartly turned out regiments of black type on graphically beautiful pages for thousands of people to read.  To me that was magic, and my father was a writer."

Growing up, Wolfe wanted more than anything else to be a professional baseball player.  He was a star pitcher for his high school and college teams, and he played for two seasons in an amateur league.  He quit baseball after he was rejected at a tryout for the New York Giants.  He began his writing career in the late 1950s as a journalist for newspapers in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as for magazines such as New York and Esquire.

Wolfe was a literary pioneer, one of the first writers to use a technique known as New Journalism—a style of nonfiction that borrowed creative techniques from fiction and often included the journalist as a character in the story.  Many of his essays, on topics including stock-car racing, contemporary art, and the psychedelic movement of the Sixties, were published in the collections, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Pump House Gang (1968).

In 1970, he published Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a highly controversial book about racial friction in the United States.  The first section was a detailed account of a party Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue duplex, and the second portrayed the inner workings of the government's poverty program.

Even more controversial was his 1975 book on the American art world, The Painted Word.  The art world reacted furiously, partly because Wolfe kept referring to it as the "art village," depicting it as a network of no more than three thousand people, of whom about three hundred lived outside the New York metropolitan area.  In 1976, he published another collection, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, which included his well-known essay, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening."

In 1979, Wolfe completed a book he had been at work on for more than six years, an account of the rocket airplane experiments of the post-World War II era and the early space program, focusing upon the psychology of the rocket pilots and the astronauts and the competition between them.  The Right Stuff became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.  It was later turned into a riveting film.

In 1981, Wolfe began researching an ambitious project about professionals in New York City.  He was planning on making the book nonfiction but changed his mind, and it became The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).  Originally published in serial form in Rolling Stone magazine, when it came out as a book, it became a huge bestseller.  It, too, was a popular film starring Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith.

In 1996, Wolfe wrote the novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg, as a two-part series for Rolling Stone.  In 1997, it was published as a book in France and Spain and as an audiotape in the United States.  An account of a network television magazine show's attempt to trap three soldiers at Fort Bragg into confessing to the murder of one of their comrades, it grew out of what had been intended as one theme in a novel Wolfe was working on at the time.  The novel, A Man in Full, was published in November of 1998. 

The book's protagonists are a sixty-year-old Atlanta real estate developer whose empire has begun a grim slide toward bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer who works in the freezer unit of a wholesale food warehouse in Alameda County, California, owned by the developer.  Before the story ends, both have to face the question of what it is that makes a man "a man in full" now, at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium.

A Man in Full headed the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks and has sold a million-and-a-half copies in hardcover.  The book's tremendous commercial success, its enthusiastic welcome by reviewers, and Wolfe's appearance on the cover of Time magazine in his trademark white suit, white homburg, and white kid gloves -- along with his claim that his sort of detailed realism was the future of the American novel, if it was going to have one -- provoked a furious reaction among other American novelists, including John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving.

Wolfe said, "People are always writing about the energy of New York.  What they really mean is the status ambitions of the people of New York.  That's the motor in this town.  That's what makes it exciting—and it's also what makes it awful many times."

Tom Wolfe's latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), met with mixed reviews, although that hasn't kept him from being a prolific self-promoter, especially at colleges and universities around the country.  Undeterred by the book's lack of critical acclaim, Wolfe continues to live and write in New York City with his wife, Sheila, and his children, Alexandra and Tommy.

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