Getting the Ending Out of Tom Wolfe
Even after Tom Wolfe came to be recognized as a novelist through the success of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” he remained a journalist in one respect: the way to get him to finish a piece of writing was to give him a deadline.
I found this out during the run-up to the publication of his second novel, “A Man in Full,” in the summer of 1998. When I got involved—as an associate editor with his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux—all the hard work had been done. To sign up the book, Roger Straus had agreed to part with a sum worthy of the follow-up to “Bonfire.” Jonathan Galassi, the editor-in-chief and the book’s editor, reading draft after draft, had made a crucial intervention: when Wolfe mused aloud that maybe he should set the novel in Atlanta rather than New York, Galassi replied, “Maybe you should.” Lynn Nesbit had sold rights all over the world; Jann Wenner had enabled Wolfe to make a few reporting trips in his Gulfstream jet. The titles “Mayflies” and “Red Dogs” had been scrapped, and the protagonist’s name changed to dodge a lawsuit; an elaborate die-cut jacket had been approved; a Vanity Fair profile had been arranged; publication had been set for a certain date in November, and launch events scheduled in Atlanta and in New York, where the ballroom of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, on Fifth Avenue, was reserved for a weeknight in high social season. All set—except for one thing. Straus, who had published Wolfe for three decades, summed it up: “Now all he has to do is finish the fucker!”
At the time, the text was a couple of thousand pages, typed—on a typewriter—with triple spacing, a practice that gave Wolfe room to revise extensively with a pencil in his elegant handwriting. He loved revising that way, marking up page proofs especially, and, with this in mind, several of us at FSG devised a plan to “crash” the book through to publication by treating it as a giant two-parter. Tom would mark up typed chapters of part one and hand them over to us, and we would edit, copy-edit, and set them in type, while he was marking up typed chapters of part two—and while he was also, we hoped, writing the ending of the novel, which would run to about twenty-five thousand words. When he delivered a fresh batch of typed pages from part two of the novel, I would reward him by relinquishing a batch of typeset proofs from part one, which he was free to revise to his heart’s content.
He was working at a house in Southampton. Midweek, I would call and ask, shakedown-style: “So, Tom, how many pages are we getting this week?”
“Not a large number, but a good number—a pretty good number.”
Delivery was simple. In late morning, a batch of typed pages was conveyed to the Hampton Jitney in a manila envelope addressed to the publisher in flamboyant script, and the envelope was given to the driver. Thus entrusted, the pages—pages of the most eagerly awaited novel in years; pages that, if lost and found, would be catnip for any gossip columnist—were borne to midtown Manhattan. An editorial assistant met the Jitney at the stop outside Grand Central Terminal, took the envelope from the driver, and brought it to our offices on Union Square. Had Tom made a photocopy? I doubted it.
He came in several times to work on the typescript, dressed in a seersucker suit, well tailored and well worn. One time, the publisher and editor-in-chief took him to lunch at Union Square Café, on East Sixteenth Street—“the commissary,” Roger called it—and I joined them. We ambled over in the summer heat. The restaurant next door, Blue Water Grill, featured a long row of round tables and paired wicker chairs set on a raised platform along the sidewalk, each table occupied by two smartly turned-out New Yorkers. Next to the platform that day was a dumpster, fully loaded with lumber, scrap, soil, trash, and dog poop. “Now that’s what I call al-fresco dining,” Tom said offhandedly. “Reminds me of the people who spend three million dollars for an apartment on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum—so the diesel exhaust from the tour buses idling across from the museum can waft up to their terraces . . . ”
He came to the office one Friday in July and we worked on the text together all morning and into the lunch hour. Following the publishing tradition of summer hours, FSG officially closed at one. At a quarter after one, we went to a photocopier in the back. Every office was empty; every light was out. “I must say, publishers aren’t exactly keeping up with the investment bankers, when it comes to the workday,” he said. “No wonder the book business is in trouble.”
A month later, with the ending of the novel as yet undelivered—had he written it? Started it? I had no idea—we worked through a list of queries from a fact checker. To the queries about a baroquely detailed description of the interior of a Gulfstream jet, Tom said, “Jann has one, and that’s the way it is on his.” No catalogues, spec sheets, or calls to the manufacturer for him; he had done his reporting firsthand. To the queries about a scene involving some boys in the South throwing stones across a river at another boy, he said, “The source for that one is my childhood.”
He stood in the hallway, in that seersucker suit, sipping from a can of Coke (the signature drink of Atlanta), held in one hand, which shook slightly—the only sign of his advancing age (he was sixty-eight) and the effects of the bypass surgery he’d undergone some months earlier—and asked whether the new book was any good.
Working with him, I expected to learn about the makings of his famous prose style, and I did. But I learned something more fundamental: that the serious writer, no matter how well known, how well off, how celebrated for his phrasemaking and social commentary, knows that a new book is a venture into the unknown for writer and reader alike. I had read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “The Right Stuff,” “From Bauhaus to Our House,” “Bonfire,” and now “A Man in Full”—all but the ending, anyhow. Was it any good? It was.
He did finish; “A Man in Full” was published in November (the Sherry-Netherland! High social season!), and the hardcover sold upward of a million copies. I don’t remember the ending—some twist involving prison, stoicism, and conversion—and I would guess that most of the people who read the novel don’t remember, either. And that’s all right. Tom Wolfe, master of the deadline, understood that a story set in the present time is open-ended and ongoing—that, in a sense, it is completed by the public, who carry it forward into the future. So it is now with his own story.
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May 16, 2018 at 09:12PM