Tom Wolfe, Author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Passes Away at Age 88

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, 2000, Oil on canvas by Everett Raymond Kinstler/flickr

Tom Wolfe, the groundbreaking journalist and novelist, whose bestselling works included The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, passed away Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

A contrarian with a satirical bent, Wolfe’s prose pyrotechnics and oft-startling turns-of-phrase found their way into the pop-culture lexicon and cemented Wolfe as one of the finest writers of his generation. He pioneered a literary style of non-fiction that would eventually become known as New Journalism and alongside contemporaries like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson upended conventional journalistic and nonfiction techniques with long-form pieces from a deeply immersed perspective. It is a style arguably best exemplified in Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a groundbreaking account of his time traveling California with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, originally published in 1968. The Right Stuff, his meticulous account of the test pilots who would become America’s first astronauts, runs at a close second. For Wolfe, the techniques a writer used in fiction and nonfiction were interchangeable, and he proved that assumption repeatedly with a host of captivating essays in magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Harper’s. When he eventually turned his pen to fiction with The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987, the results were as ambitious and genre-defying as one would expect.

With a remarkable ear, an acid pen, and unfailing insight into his subjects, Tom Wolfe created a nearly peerless body of work and positioned himself as one of the finest and most influential writers of his time. There will never be another quite like him. He is survived by his wife, Sheila, and their two children, Alexandra Wolfe and Tommy Wolfe.