I happened to pick up an old edition of this book at a library sale last month, right before Netflix released the documentary Radical Wolfe, a look back on the writer’s career. I have to admit that before reading this book and watching that program, I wasn’t very familiar with this author.
Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was a popular and sometimes controversial writer and journalist known for nonfiction books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the LSD subculture centered in Haight-Ashbury and The Right Stuff, which inspired the movie about the space program. Wolfe later began writing novels, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and Back to Blood.
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was Wolfe’s first book, a collection of essays published in 1965. The title refers to a custom racing car, stock car racing being the topic of the book’s title essay. Other topics he covers include the New York City art scene, the “nanny mafia,” “The Secret Vice” (referring to professional men distinguishing themselves with clothing details such as custom suits).
I wasn’t overly fond of this book’s style, which is very flamboyant and self-conscious -if you couldn’t tell by the title. Wolfe loves onomatopoeia, ellipses, and exclamation points and often uses these devices seemingly at random. As an example, he starts the very first chapter repeating the word “hernia” about 50 times in various forms of capitalization. This is supposedly what a Las Vegas craps dealer sounds like to a drunk tourist at the casino.
Wolfe is fond of onomatopoeia and other literary flourishes and employ them throughout the book. He also is enamored of certain words that are frequently repeated. For example, he uses “arteriosclerotic,” in almost every chapter, not as a medical term, but as a dismissal of outdated people and groups.
Watching the Radical Wolfe documentary helped me put his grandiose style into perspective. He was a journalist breaking the conventional mold of the old style “just the facts” approach. Along with other groundbreaking journalists of the time, such as Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, Wolfe was making a statement by inserting himself in the scene rather than being the silent, supposedly objective observer.
Style aside, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby provides an often fascinating and unique perspective of a particular, long-gone era. As he did in Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe likes to explore all ends of the economic and cultural spectrum. He moves from the stock car and bootlegging subculture of the South to the upper class art scene of New York City to the middlebrow tourists who gamble in Las Vegas.
I appreciated being exposed to an array of worlds that I knew almost nothing about. With stock car racing, Wolfe communicates how this sport provided a sense of meaning and empowerment for poor and working class young people. At the other end of the spectrum, he provides interesting and often amusing insights into the peculiarities of affluent Upper East Siders (in Manhattan) and the customs of the doormen who park their cars. There are also some period-specific forays into Beatlemania and a look at a very young and frenetic Phil Spector, who would become a leading music producer and, later, a convicted murderer.
Tom Wolfe is a distinctive and outspoken guide through the early to mid-1960s, a period vastly different from the present but which had a profound influence on so much that we now take for granted in popular culture.