Truman Capote released In Cold Blood in 1966; Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of The Vanities was published in 1987. Twenty-one years between them, the two books continue to have lasting effect as influential treatises regarding, what Wolfe confirmed by title in his 1973 text of the same name, as ‘The New Journalism’. These two books are not comparable in plot, genre (Capote claimed with his, to have invented the “non-fiction novel”; Wolfe’s is clearly fiction), nor in their overt style.
But this essay chooses to compare In Cold Blood and The Bonfire of The Vanities through the separate influence that each book has offered – immediately – to peer-writers, whilst also unearthing a number of stylistic similarities. Again, style-wise, the two writers would seem to pick an individual path – but under examination, particularly in accordance with the devices Wolfe accords to the New Journalism movement, it’s clear that the two books have had their own effect, not just on readers – but directly on fellow writers.
The Non-Fiction Novel
Truman Capote chose to interpret the actual event of a multiple murder, In Cold Blood is his true account. Halcomb, Texas, a small interdependent community was left reeling when, on November 15th 1959, the Clutter family was senselessly slaughtered by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Five years later, the killers were sentenced to hang. This is Capote’s plot. In and around this, there were things he could not know; character details that he needed to assume to create a compelling narrative. His research was exhaustive – visiting the captured killers almost every day over the five years of their imprisonment, piecing together their pasts (both shared and separate) from countless interviews. Still, there were character details he needed to embellish in order to procure a flowing narrative. Painting from a palette of fact, Capote’s touch of colour is believable, sincere – yet there’s some fun being had with some of the descriptions; Nancy Clutter is described early in the book as:
A straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists League, a skilled rider, an excellent musician…an enigma the community pondered, and solved by saying, ‘She’s got character. Gets it from her old man’. 
This literary technique of quality characterisation was no doubt part of Capote’s boast that this was both novel as well as non-fiction. Such device is labeled as one of four, required by the writer of New Journalism, that being the gift of characterisation: to observe and recall social mannerisms, everyday gestures, customs and the way of life.
Capote could well have set the precedent for such devices, as later labeled by Wolfe. The structure of In Cold Blood favours scene-by-scene reconstructions, time-lapsed in places to allow the thrust of the narrative to be at the forefront of the story, making sure dialogue is both realistic and complete. With the readers drawn in through such device, the background is added, as it becomes relevant and necessary. Wolfe lists the need to steer away from sheer historical narrative as his first important device, whilst his second device, as listed, calls for complete dialogue.
Capote’s non-fiction novel claim was not entirely held up. In fact, it’s largely reported that he withdrew for several years, largely bitter at not being heralded a genius for the birth of a new genre.
His influence over the New Journalism was already easy to trace. One year after In Cold Blood was released, self-professed “gonzo-journalist” Hunter S. Thompson, released his debut, Hells Angels. Whilst a true account from first person, of actual events – Thompson rode with the Angels – many of Capote’s narrative techniques (later held up as ‘devices’ by Wolfe) were adhered to. The influence of this style of “Parajournalism”, as Wolfe also refers to it, was starting to spread.
Fiction From Fact
By 1987 Tom Wolfe was well established as a writer. He approached the New Journalism in reverse to Capote. Wolfe was a journalist, whereas Capote was a writer of fiction first, later turned journalist. With the release of The Bonfire of The Vanities, Wolfe’s long-hyped “New York novel” – he’d finally turned – fully – to fiction. His fiction of course, to replicate his own move from journalist to novelist derided from fact. Wolfe’s introduction to Bonfire tells of having to change his fictional plot, because of some actual reportage coming from the mugging scene he was envisaging; the irony of ‘imaging’ something fiction and then it turning to fact before it could be written. No doubt, it’s an irony Wolfe enjoyed.
Bonfire is fiction, its plot though, revolving around the spiritually bankrupt Wall-Streeter, Shermon McCoy, can be deemed a moral comedy. Wolfe takes his fiction from fact, for Bonfire is essentially a parody: a report of the hypocrisy of the social and economic elite living in New York in the 1980s. The word report is appropriate for the writing style garnered, linking this novel to Wolfe’s earlier journalistic work. It is through reportage that he shows such hypocrisy. McCoy, as a character exposes such hypocrisy, not just to the reader, but also to himself. The description of how everyone is dressed at a party is crucial “Hochswald wore a black serge suit, a white shirt and a spread collar, a black silk necktie with a large almost rakish knot…” yet Sherman can’t adequately explain what his job is, when asked by his daughter.
Such ridiculous juxtaposition of pointless description seeming exquisite over required description deemed unable, is admitted again by McCoy, who concedes that he’s “going broke on $1,000,000 a year” and can’t control his dog. He’s, apparently a “Master of the Universe” but despite such apparent confidence he exposes the flaw in his character, without irony, early in the novel where he recognises himself to be the perfect image walking his daughter to her private school bus on Park Avenue. He has just been caught ‘in flagrante telephone’ with his mistress – so he comes to see that a ‘picture’ of humanity, is all he is, all he’ll ever be.
Brett Easton Ellis may have taken Bonfire as a starting point for his own American Psycho – novel, not non-fiction (obviously) – which again deals with the greed and opulence of the excessive eighties. Ellis’ main character, Patrick Bateman, tells the story through his eyes, rather than Wolfe’s third person technique, but the influence is clear, he even has Bateman describing the clothing – as with the aforementioned scene in Bonfire.
Bateman even works at the same fictional firm as Shermon McCoy, an intended co-incidence, surely?
Wolfe’s fiction, spawned from fact – or an idea of fact – worked as a progenitor for a new style, as was the case with Capote’s In Cold Blood.
The interesting similarities between Blood and Bonfire are not in the themes, but in the style of the themes.
Capote exposed a small-town shocked by an occurrence. Wolfe chose a big city and lead unrelated characters towards interdependence. It’s ironic, as the true tragedy of the small town left people reeling, and afraid, worried at their lose of reliance and assurance on one another. Whereas Wolfe’s staged account of greed in a big city, saw a faceless city streamline to create a very dependant state between formerly unrelated, unknowing characters.
Both books are examples of the style termed The New Journalism. Capote’s “non-fiction novel” spread its influence initially on the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer. It’s still a style that’s since been adopted by many contemporary writers wishing to view non-fictional events with excitement. The feeling conveyed is often one of having been there, when exposing truths from history. Capote of course remains silent in the text, but the reader feels his presence in the art of his conceived descriptions.
Tom Wolfe’s novel, the first he’s attempted, led to a second large work of fiction (A Man in Full, 1998) as well as having effect on the reportage-styled fiction writing of Brett Easton Ellis (not just in American Psycho but also Glamorama). And can be linked even to the likes of Nick Hornby, whose novels of life in London deal specifically with a life so similar to the author’s yet constantly concealed from full inspection, filtered through the presence of a character to convey the emotional setting.
Perhaps the major difference between Capote’s staging of his non-fiction – as a novel – is that he exposes the characters for what they are; real people. Wolfe’s characters on the other hand succumb to the fate of fiction – for they are real characters masquerading as real people. The downfall for them is inevitable; ironically, we know the downfall of Capote’s characters before the end of the first chapter, yet through an engaging narrative we’re coerced to read on.
Wolfe’s stylistic device is to create characters so sure that they exist, so superficial in their daily lives, that he’s able through the details of such self-absorbed lives to sustain readers’ interest across a 700-page narrative.
This essay did not intend to compare the two books and offer one as better or more successful than the other; rather the intention has been to showcase two works of New Journalism, that were important on their first offering. And continue to be to this day. The sphere of their influence is clear, and the constant acknowledgement of these two fundamentally different books guarantees their place in the continued establishment of New Journalism.
 Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood, Penguin, 1966; Page 29
 Wolfe, Tom and E.W. Johnson (Eds): The New Journalism, Picador, 1973; Page 47
Wolfe/Johnson: Ibid; page 46
 Wolfe/Johnson: Ibid
 Wolfe, Tom: The Bonfire of The Vanities, Picador; (Introduction) – page xxiv
To follow me in all the right places check out the Linktree right here.
And to subscribe to my Substack newsletter “Sounds Good” click here