A couple of weeks ago I attended an event at Alan Flusser’s place. Alan — who was clad in, if I recall correctly, a double-breasted shawl-collared tartan dinner jacket, ascot, Belgian Shoes, and black jersey Ralph Lauren athletic pants that looked like formal trousers in the light and the context — told me he’d read my mini-book “The Disengage.” Basically, and I’m summarizing here, he found the writing voice annoyingly precious at the get-go and didn’t care for it. But he stuck it out and by the middle the voice and the tale itself were one, made perfect sense, and he really enjoyed it. “I should give it to Tom Wolfe,” he said. “He’d love it.”
Alas there’s no point in asking Alan if that ever happened, as the pioneering author in the white suit has died at the age of 88. There are a lot of synchronicities (meaningful coincidences) going on here, including the fact that I discovered Wolfe in ’88. I was a senior in high school and had just discovered the worlds of literature and style that would fascinate me to this day, and Wolfe embodied them both in one person. Back then, in suburban California, my only connection to the world of style were through movies such as “Wall Street” and “The Untouchables,” and the monthly issues of GQ and M, The Civilized Man. Wolfe had recently released “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” and must have been featured in one of the magazines. His neo-Edwardian look touched on some archetype in my unconscious, and I rushed out to buy the book, the first contemporary novel I’d read, and one of the few ever since.
By the time I was 24 I’d published a couple of short stories, won a regional fiction contest, and written a novella called “Rewinding” about a young fogey and reclusive eccentric adrift in the modern world. I wrote a letter to Wolfe in care of his publisher appealing to his sense of dandyism and asking if he’d read it, and some months later he was gracious enough to write back. Later, in 2011 I wrote a piece pegged on his ornamental penmanship called “How To Get A Swashbuckling Signature” for the Park & Bond website. The original is down, but the Ivy Style post on it remains.
Here’s Wolfe’s letter, written in sky-blue felt:
A year later, in 1995, I heard Wolfe speak before a large crowd in San Francisco. I remember feeling that the theme of his talk on contemporary American society was five years behind the times. Wolfe had managed to nail the zeitgeist in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, less so after that.
But his influence on me personally may be just a tad greater than I like to think. Although my story “The Disengage” is a pastiche of fin-de-siecle people and pretensions, the use of exclamation points by the flamboyant narrator may owe something to Wolfe. His sartorial and literary style will not be forgotten. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD