In the space of less than two weeks, we lost two giants in modern American literature. Both of the same generation, each groundbreaking and provocative in his own way, but at the same time very different in style and substance.
Tom Wolfe, of course, was the dapper, eccentric Southern-gentleman author of such classics as The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, a trailblazer of the “New Journalism” of the 1960s and '70s along with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. Resplendent in his immaculate white suits, he was quite the character. Eschewing modern PC’s, he reportedly typed Bonfire entirely on an electric typewriter.
I never read the novel that put him on the map, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which was a little before my time, but I of course read Bonfire—the definitive satire of Reagan-era excesses and racial tensions, and its inferior follow-up, A Man in Full. In journalism school, I read his hysterical New York magazine essay, “Radical Chic,” which deconstructs a 1968 Manhattan dinner party hosted by Leonard Bernstein in honor of the Black Panthers.
He had a gift for capturing particular moments in the American culture. Bonfire, along with Rubik’s cube and the movie Wall Street, is an essential part of any 1980s time capsule.
Wolfe was not the most prolific of writers—he’d go a decade or longer between novels. The Right Stuff was made into a fairly decent film starring Sam Shepherd, and Bonfire of the Vanities became a terrible movie starring Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith.
I confess to being less familiar with Roth’s work. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Roth, a native of Newark, New Jersey, often wrote about the Jewish-American experience and was more prolific. One of his early novels, Goodbye Columbus, was made into a movie in 1969, but he caused a sensation that same year with publication of Portnoy’s Complaint. My first exposure to his writing was a chapter from that book published in an erotic-themed literary anthology. For anyone familiar with the novel, it was the “masturbation” chapter. I laughed out loud reading it, something very few writers can make me do.
Roth was one of those authors I always mean to get around to reading whenever I have more time. I didn’t read his most famous works, but I read his short 2007 novel (novella?) Everyman. It’s probably best to be introduced to Roth in small doses. As someone told me, “he makes you think.” Everyman centered on a former Manhattan advertising executive coming to grips with his failing health, his estranged relationship with his sons, his failed marriages, and his impending mortality.
The protagonist is unnamed, a brilliant narrative device because it forces the reader to mentally substitute themselves, or perhaps somebody else. It reminded me of a man I knew, no relation, so I visualized him in the protagonist’s shoes. The novel was probably semi-autobiographical, which most of Roth’s books reportedly were. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Not that Roth could complain that he didn’t live to a ripe old age. Both Wolfe and Roth died in New York hospitals, both were well into their 80s. I wonder if there’s anyone on today’s literary scene who can take their place.