There’s a montage at the opening of the criminally-underrated film Orange County in which Colin Hanks’ character finds a book buried on the beach. The scene shows the rollercoaster wave of emotion the book brings and ultimately leads him to a shiny point of epiphany: “I want to be a writer!” I didn’t find the Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on the beach or in some proverbial sword in the stone, but that book rewired the chemistry in my brain forever. It made me want to be a writer.
As a former public school English teacher, I am well aware of the exceptional job that administrators and curriculum creators are doing in making the average student want to never pick up a book. My high school English courses handed out reading list filled with titles that would make even an early Victorian nauseous, but somewhere in the fray, I found Tom Wolfe’s account of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, his Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, and parties where attendees drank pitchers of psychedelic Kool-Aid.
Reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as an impressionable fifteen-year-old kid had as big of an impact on me as if I had gone to one of those acid parties. I saw things I couldn’t unsee. I saw the age-old Temple of Objective Art flaming in hot, molten ash. All of the rules I had been taught were tarred and feathered and stripped of all power. Tom Wolfe showed me the cracks in the system that I would have never realized were there.
Spearheading “New Journalism,” in the 1960s and ’70s, Wolfe shook traditional journalistic conventions with a style he called “Saturation Reporting.”
“Often you feel as if you’ve put your whole central nervous system on red alert and turned it into a receiving set with your head panning the molten tableau like a radar dish, with you saying, ‘Come in, world,’ since you only want… all of it…” Wolfe said of his style according to The New Yorker. He and writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer weren’t concerned with “just-the-facts”; they wanted the truth, in all of its wretched, broken beauty.
Wolfe, whose career spanned more than half a century, went on to win numerous national awards for many of his seventeen books, including The Right Stuff, a dive into the astronauts a part of NASA’s Project Mercury spaceflight, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, a book that Wolfe started by researching the highs and lows of life in New York City. “I’ve always contended on a theoretical level that the techniques… for fiction and nonfiction are interchangeable,” he said. “The things that work in nonfiction would work in fiction, and vice versa,” he told NPR.
But the journalist and author’s biggest impact on me wasn’t his pyrotechnic style, it was knowing that Wolfe was also a scrawny kid from Richmond, Virginia. Wolfe, who passed away this Monday at the age of 88 in New York City, grew up in Ginter Park and went to St. Christopher’s School. He was one of us.
But he didn’t stay here. When he came back to Richmond in 2011 for St. Christopher’s 100-year anniversary, he shared a simple message: “If you are a writer, then you have to get out and experience the world. You can’t isolate yourself. You have to get out of the building,” St. Christopher’s director of development Delores Smith told the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Wolfe effectively left the city when he enrolled in a doctorate program at Yale University, and ultimately landed in New York City in the early 1960s. He lived there for the rest of his life, but he always remembered Richmond fondly. In an interview with the New York Times, he remembers praying every night as a boy, thanking God that he was born “in the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest country.”
Wolfe’s career asks the big, scary, and uncomfortable questions for Richmond artists. These questions are echoed by the careers of other legendary Richmond-born creators from the likes of Warren Beatty to D’Angelo to Edgar Allen Poe: how do you get to the top of your craft and stay true to your roots? Is there an artistic ceiling in Richmond? Do we really have to get out of the building?
By the end of Orange County, Colin Hanks’ character is asking himself if James Joyce would have truly become James Joyce if he had never left Ireland. It begs the question: would Tom Wolfe have truly become Tom Wolfe if he had never left Richmond? Perhaps in the future, the quantum mechanics of time travel will give us some concrete answers.
For now, I can only be grateful that Wolfe left the building. Without his journey with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in a tie-dyed school bus, many of us who Wolfe touched with his writing would still be living in a grayscale world.
Photo By: National Endowment for the Humanities