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This piece from the Good Weekend Archives was published on Saturday, October 17 1998. Tom Wolfe who took a new mixture of journalism and literary techniques to mind-bending heights passed away on Monday, aged 87 in a Manhattan hospital.

He gave us radical chic and the Me decade, then drew a blistering portrait of the '80s in The Bonfire of the Vanities. And watch out, movers and shakers – now he's doing the '90s. But if you think that makes Tom Wolfe a hip, happening kind of guy, forget it. Ginny Dougary found a southern gent given to whiter shades of pale.

Of course, his suit precedes him. The question was, in New York's head-slamming summer heat, as he races to complete the long-awaited second novel, would he still go in for the full Tom Wolfe regalia? The bespoke three-piece in some shade of cream or parchment, rarely white, close-up; the four buttons on the sleeves of the jacket which can all be undone – beauty and function, don't y'know – the pinstriped shirt with its starched, high collar, the sober silk tie and pocket handkerchief, the gold fob-watch, the lickety-spit correspondent's shoes in baby-soft leather. But exactly.

Tom Wolfe in 1998. When I walk into a room I want everyone to say, "Who in the name of God is that?" 'After that,' he said, 'I don't care what they say.'

Photo: AP

One of the problems of affecting the same if singular southern dandy look for well-nigh 30 years is that it tends to highlight the passage of time. When the immaculate white suit is set in aspic, it draws your attention to the deterioration of its owner. Like one of his own Hogarthian drawings: Drug Addict 1860 – Drug Addict 1960, the pose can also end up as parody. And self-parody is one form of sharp-eyed mockery Wolfe doesn't usually go in for.

You look at his cocky smirk in an old photograph – the famous one, say, by Irving Penn in 1966 – where his Kirk Douglas chin-dimple hasn't yet been lost to gravity, and exclaim, "Goodness, how young he looks!" Or an even older photograph in his study, a decade earlier, in his first job as a newspaper man: a 26-year-old whipper-snapper, jacket thrust back, hands on hips, wide eyes gazing out; the very portrait of a dashing young blade who, you can be sure, just knows that he is going places. His mouth is so ripe and fleshy and … sensual that his face seems to bear no relationship to the one of the thin-lipped gentleman beside me. "Ah, well," he sighs, "it's something which goes with age, unfortunately."

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And you look at the recent photographs, where the hair is an austere grey and no longer flops quite so rakishly over the high-domed forehead, the whiskery brows, the veins on the nose, the stiffness of the collar pushing up the wattle of flesh, and that fabulous, insolent swagger is now apt to look merely crabby. At 68, Wolfe is no spring chicken but still you find yourself murmuring, "Gosh, hasn't he aged."

Does the suit matter? You can think, like Norman Mailer, that "there's something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York" (a reference to some arcane breach of East Side etiquette, which forbids the wearing of white after Labor Day). Or you can consider the writer who brought us those phrases that instantly conjure a certain milieu or evoke the spirit of an age: in the '60s, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and "radical chic"; the solipsistic '70s, which Wolfe christened "The Me Decade"; and from the '80s, the scrawny "social X-rays". Wall Street's "Masters of the Universe", and arrogant black youths with their "pimp-roll" walk, from his sprawling canvas of New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities … and think, well, he can wear what he darn well pleases.

He is spending the summer in Long Island's Southampton, as he has done for the past 20 years, in a large, white wooden house on the Agawam Lake which he rents from friends who live next door. This is the Hamptons' old-money set, or perhaps that should be olde monie; the place is so self-consciously unmodern that even the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream store feels obliged to call itself a Dessert Shoppe.

We are greeted, if that is the word, by the family terrier who yaps so loudly and insistently that her master's muted southern tones – cain't for can't; faahve for five – are all but drowned out. "Hush up, Strawberry," he keeps saying, to no effect. One of my American friends had suggested tentatively that a beachside Wolfe might conceivably go in for short trousers: white, of course, maybe in linen with a colonial flavour. But as soon asI clap eyes on him, dressed up as he is to the hilt, I see that this must have been some kind of joke. Wolfe is as likely to be seen in shorts as he is to let someone else write the ending of his book for him. We say that we were hoping for something different for the photograph; something, perhaps, a little more informal?

"Oh, but I'm a very formal person" he says, mildly, and tells us that his teenage children despair of him. "They think I'm a throwback," he says. "Here I can just about be prevailed upon to walk out of the door without a tie on, but I would never do that in New York."

Another problem with the suit is that you're not sure what signals it's intended to throw out. It is one of his tenets as a writer that it is only by excavating the surface of things – the way people walk and talk, choose to decorate their houses and themselves – that you can get to the heart of a society. Critics of his one published novel to date (Bonfire) say this anthropological approach reduces his fiction to a one-note samba: you cannot hear the heartbeat of his characters; they are tribal types rather than fully realised individuals; the author's eye is too clinical; the requisite empathy lacking.

US author, Tom Wolfe in 1975.

Photo: Bernard Gotfryd/AP

But you can be captivated by his writing, and still see that there may be flaws in his methodology. Try to construct a personality around what he wears, for instance, and you might deduce several things, most of which are erroneous or simplistic. You might guess (correctly) that he is from the south; that he is a show-off (in his writing, perhaps, certainly in the experimental dawn of New Journalism, but not in person); that he is a snob (debatable – he has called himself a body snob, remaining trim in his late sixties if frail, and is not shy about mentioning the name of his London cobbler in Jermyn Street, but one of his criticisms of the early modern architects, in From Bauhaus to Our House, is their high-handed disregar

d of the needs of the workers for whom they designed their poky, low-ceilinged apartments); and that he is a tricky customer (quite wrong), waspish as well as Waspish, from the same tribe as the preposterously effete art critic Brian Sewell who, like Wolfe, doesn't much care for modern "art" or its orthodoxies.

He first wore the white suit in the '60s and liked the way it seemed to irritate people. He has been quizzed about it so often in the intervening time that he tends to fall back on stock responses. When I ask him what he would make of a character who dressed like himself, he replies – off pat – "I'd say he was like Mark Twain [another southern white-suit wearer] who said, 'The last thing in the world I want to be is conspicuous, but I do want to be noticed.'" When I say, a bit grumpily, that I've heard that one before, he quotes someone else – a dead public relations man. "He wore Edwardian four-buttoned suits with tiny lapels – very stiff rounded collars – and had a great moustache. Asked why he affected this unusual dress, he said: 'When I walk into a room I want everyone to say, "Who in the name of God is that?" 'After that,' he said, 'I don't care what they say.'" Quoting other people, of course, gets you out of having to answer the question yourself.

I wonder whether the suit started off as a magnet, but has ended up as a disguise; a means by which he can avoid revealing himself, I am thinking, a shorthand which leads you nowhere. "What I noticed is that in most situations it meant that you didn't have to have a personality. It's like on stage when they say, 'If you can't think what else to do with a character, give him a pipe.'"

Wolfe's personality, when we first meet, is somewhat eclipsed by his appearance. His face is a ghastly livid-white, as though every drop of blood has been drained away. His lips are cracked. His voice is parched. In short, he doesn't look at all well. Two summers ago, when he was alone in this house, he had a heart attack and was rushed off to Southampton Hospital before being transferred to Manhattan for a massive bypass operation. He has been left with negligible damage to his heart, he says, but the idea that they actually stopped it during surgery clearly still gives him the heebie-jeebies. That and the rude reminder that he is suddenly not as young as he would like to be.

There may be another reason that explains why he looks in bad shape right now. If Wolfe has a terrible time getting started on his novels – he has what he calls a slow literary metabolism for his long books – he seems to have an even worse time finishing them. In the week after he had delivered Bonfire to his publishers, he threw his back out, had an attack of gout (something he'd had before, but not for a decade or so) and suffered such severe palpitations of the heart that he went to see a cardiologist for stress tests. "It didn't feel like high anxiety," he says, "but it probably was. As soon as the book came out, everything went away."

Since he's at a similar pre-publication stage with the new novel – A Man in Full, rather a disappointing title from the writer who brought us The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine and The Purple Decades – perhaps he is gearing up for another battery of psychosomatic illnesses. The book itself, which has been 11 years in the making, is very far from disappointing. I have only read the incomplete version – 600-odd pages in manuscript form – and cannot wait to find out how Wolfe has unravelled the complex weave of his plot to arrive at a tidy resolution. He has, at last, handed in his ending but – alas – he politely declines to give it away.

A Man in Full is being loosely referred to as a sequel, in so much as it does for the '90s what Bonfire did for the '80s. But it is both more ambitious in scope than its predecessor and the inner lives of its central characters are more developed. The stage has moved from New York to Atlanta; the players are the southern dukes of real estate, with their tower-block fiefdoms and incredible plantations, instead of the bond-dealing wizards of Wall Street. The big contemporary themes are all here: the property crash; epic bankruptcy; widespread redundancies; racial politics and the rise of the black yuppie; date rape; political correctness, and so on.

Tom Wolfe in 2016.

Photo: AP

Against this backdrop, we have Charlie Croker, a 60-year-old real-estate developer, who is utterly compelling despite his many loathsome traits: absurdly manly (but inwardly ranting against his failing powers), absurdly ostentatious, whose vaingloriousness – he simply had to build the highest, biggest, most lavish business complex in "edge city" Atlanta, during the ecstatic last whimper of the boom, and name it after himself – means that we can now enjoy the hubristic prospec

t of him losing everything to the banks. And Conrad Hensley from California, handsome son of reckless hippies, endlessly thwarted by fate and circumstance, honourable family man and friend, whose ability to endure is tested time and time again. When we first encounter him, he is a worker in the "Suicidal Freezer Unit" of Croker Global Foods, who becomes a casualty of Charlie's "downsizing" attempts to stave off bankruptcy and, above all, avoid losing his beloved 11.7-hectare plantation in south Georgia, "Turpmtine". These are the strongest characters in the novel, both Herculean heroes in their own way, and Wolfe confirms – as the reader suspects – that their lives will eventually collide. At the end of the book, he says, you will be asking yourself which of the two men is the true protagonist: the man in full.

One of the most poignant episodes, certainly for any female reader of a certain age, is when Martha Croker, Charlie's ex-wife whom he replaced with a "loamy-loined" second wife, decides to come out of divorcee purdah and attend a big society bash. For months she has been working out at the gym, hoping to transform her matronly figure (the reason, she believes, deep down, why her husband left her) into the fashionable "boy with breasts" norm. At the party, she plucks up the courage to speak to a male acquaintance, who looks straight through her and asks after the kids. At dinner, the men on either side of her talk to each other. Poor Martha – how we root for her – has ceased to exist.

Wolfe didn't need to research this scene, since it is one that he witnesses all the time. He can tell what it feels like to be on the receiving end, because he's heard so much about it from his female friends. I ask him whether he's actually seen men talk across the women sitting next to them at dinner. "Oh, I've seen myself do it," he says. "It's really bad news. That really is an occasion when you should try to be polite."

If this is a disconcerting admission, it's because you expect someone who is so punctilious about his wardrobe to be fastidious in every way. But there are other surprises, this home for one – with its thin peppermint carpet and matching gingham curtains, twee porcelain knick-knacks on heavy dark furniture, the feeling of being in a genteel boarding-house that has gone to seed. Of course, this may reflect the taste of its owners, but since Wolfe has been spending every weekend here, as well as the summers, for the past two decades, one assumes that he must have had some say in the furnishings.

In fact, he's rather gratifyingly sniffy about the Home Beautiful. When he talks about the danger of having too much money (not something he feels that he suffers from, evidently, despite the size of his advance, rumoured to be as much as $US7 million), he says, "With interior decoration, for instance [casting a furtive look around the room], how would you know when to stop?"

The gulf between the private and the public Wolfe becomes more apparent the longer you stick around him. This is true of most well-known personalities, but it is particularly arresting in his case because the pose is so precious and the man is not.

Dotted around the house are photographs of a much younger Wolfe cradling his newborn baby daughter, Alexandra (who is now 18 and about to go to college), and – later – when she is a little girl, in white socks and sandals and a candy-coloured striped

frock, fingers in her mouth, cuddling her with a look of such sweet joyousness on his face, as though he cannot believe his good fortune. This is a glimpse of a very different Wolfe: family man (he also has a 13-year-old son, Tom), relaxed, unbuttoned. Why, for all his talk of ties and formality, he is even wearing an open shirt and casual jacket.

He married late, when he was 48. His wife, Sheila, a Jewish New Yorker, is the former art director of Harper's magazine, to which Wolfe has been a regular contributor: a slim, dark-haired, youthful woman (she is 16 years his junior), to go by her old photographs, with a pleasant, open expression. She is one of the two people – Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, being the other – whose editorial judgment he relies on. Years into writing The Right Stuff, the book that made heroes out of the test pilots who became astronauts, Wolfe was worrying about the fact that they were nowhere near the moon. "They're not going to the moon," she said firmly. "Not in this book." And they didn't.

New York, he says, is a bad place for marriage – which is one of the reasons it took him so long to settle down. "I would advise all men and women on this subject to go to Boston or Cambridge, which is a wonderful matrimonial ground. People are so wound up in their careers in this city, and I was certainly one of them, that they're not going to take what I guess are called 'relationships' seriously." He looks so uncomfortable that I hoot with laughter. "Relationships is such an over-used word here," he grins. "That and 'closure'… 'We have to achieve closure.'"

Lack of funds was another reason Wolfe had difficulty "achieving closure" with his "relationships". He was 32 when he finally hit New York, where he had been aiming for since his teens and, despite his prolific output – working three days a week on the city desk of the New York Herald Tribune, writing a longer piece each week for its colour supplement, New York magazine (which, unlike the paper, still exists), and his weekends on lengthy assignments for Esquire – his earnings never seemed to amount to much.

Was there never a moment of panic, I ask him, as he approached his mid-forties and saw that all his friends were in couples? Did he never feel the desire to have children of his own? "No, I didn't, and it was a total surprise to me how wonderful it was. But, you see, I always thought that I was so young," he says. In your forties you felt you were so young, I exclaim. Why was that? "Well, here's what happens to men. You have this great vitality through your forties and you look young. Or you kid yourself that you look young. When you pass 50, you begin to see that you might not look the same – but you write that off … 'I was feeling tired that day.' Even as late as 55 or 56 – and here's where I projected myself onto Charlie Croker – you think there's this unbreakable cord that attaches you to your youth – there's a lotta men who still have a lotta vitality in their mid-fifties… But then one day, not too long after that, you're going to discover that it's only a thread, and that it can break at any moment. And not just that it can break, but that it will break." I ask him whether he's had any strange dreams or gloomy thoughts since the heart attack. "Well, something does tell you that the thread is broken, at that point," he says.

In the silence that follows, he scrabbles around his breastpocket, behind the silk tuft of his handkerchief, takes out a pair of astonishing Dame Edna-esque spectacles – small and pointy with what look like white plastic rims – perches them on his nose, reaches into his waistcoat for his fob watch, checks the time, smiles and nods expectantly. There is the sound of a clock ticking, the clink of ice as he lifts his glass of water, the dog barking in the background. "Strawberry, hush up!" he says again. "You see, I have no influence with dogs."

Despite his attachment to New York, he remains an old-fashioned southerner at heart.

You have only to scratch the surface of his suit to find a take on America that is so idealised, corny even, that it wouldn't be out of place in a vintage Hollywood movie starring Ronald Reagan.

When he was a little boy, growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he would go to bed each night and say his prayers. "I would thank God for having been born in the United States, the best country on earth. And in Virginia, which was obviously the greatest State because it had more presidents than anywhere else. And in the best city, in the best State, in the best country in the world … and I just thought," he recalls, "'Well, it cain't get any better than this.' And this was the Depression we were going through, but I didn't know what a depression was."

Sixty years have passed since then,but his views have barely altered. I suggest that Conrad Hensley's life and those of the people he encounters – at work, in prison, in the illegal immigrants' dosshouse – are so wretched that one feels the author must be in despair about the inequities of American society. "I don't feel that way at all," he says, looking baffled. "This country is very close to being what the Utopian socialists of the 19th century were looking for. The society in which everyone would have the political freedom, free time and the money … to express … their yearnings and dreams … and so on." It is my turn to look baffled. But what about the Conrads of this world, who are persistently dumped on? "That doesn't mean that everyone is going to make it," he admits. "But even at the warehouse, Kenny, for instance, can buy an expensive car and put in speakers and one thing or another … The job is awful [are-ful] but it's not a crushing existence." But Conrad is crushed, surely, I persist. Hasn't the story been constructed precisely to make the reader feel what a terribly unfair world he moves in … that things are not right? (A sub-conscious echo, I realise later, of a phrase Conrad uses all the time.) "No," he says. "I was thinking sociologically but not with an attitude of protest. I was just trying to bring alive a particular world, and I wanted to get Conrad into a stoic frame of mind. Stoicism is a philosophy which is almost tailor-made for prison."

This is the sort of detachment that bothers Wolfe's detractors, particularly those on the Left. Isn't it perverse to depict the degradation of an overcrowded, lawless prison, for instance, so vividly that the reader recoils in horror, only to shrug your shoulders and say, more or less, "I did that for technical reasons. Oh, and it's a fascinating milieu."

But perhaps one of the reasons his books are so successful is that readers choose to see their own views reflected in them. Wolfe is still nonplussed by the number of people who took The Bonfire of the Vanities to be a bleak vision of New York City. "I couldn't understand it. My idea was to say, 'Look at these people!'" his eyes sparkle. "Look at the way they live! Look what they do! It's unbelievable!"

Wolfe's books The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.

We take a break to investigate the noises that are filtering down from the study upstairs, where the photographer and his assistant are setting up their equipment. On the walls are dozens of framed awards and scrolls proclaiming Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jnr to be a doctor of this and a doctor of that from every conceivable university and college. His desk is a model of methodical workmanship; at the far end, a line of cream folders on which the various chapter headings – Beige Half-Brothers; Chocolate Society – have been inscribed in a flourish of red ink; then, in orderly ranks, felt-tips, crayons, scissors, a set of rulers, a quill pen, a magnifying glass and a silver paperknife with a handle in the form of a hawk; closer in, an Atlanta street map and pages from the manuscript which appear to be undergoing Proustian re-writes. There is a sheet of paper in the typewriter – no newfangled technology for Wolfe – with a half-finished paragraph. The single bed in the middle of the room has a quilt of page proofs. On the walls on either side of an armoire are photographs of the Thomas Kennerly Wolfes – junior and senior (who also wore a white suit, but only in the summer); the latter looks like a stronger-featured version of the former, bespectacled and slightly stern.

"You never realise how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes," Wolfe says. "It's a discovery which surprises you." Ten years after he arrived in New York, it dawned on him that he could never be a true New Yorker. "It's to do with a habit of life. Southerners tend to be far more polite than people in the North, certainly than in New York. And people from New York will often find if they go to the South that it is false, hypocritical, a clever mask. As far as I'm concerned – and this must be a southern taste – any courtesy is better than none, no matter what its actual purpose may be. It's just one of those things that makes life a little smoother."

His father was an agricultural scientist, with a doctorate in agronomy from Cornell University, who ran the experimental station for agriculture in Virginia and went on to edit The Southern Planter, a monthly magazine of news and advice for farmers. He owned his own firm in the Shenandoah Valley, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The family used to go there every weekend. I ask Wolfe whether he feels any affinity with the land and his lips curl into a U-shape of amusement. "Not in the sense of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind," he says. "No, I don't really think so." The closest he got to the land was drawing a cross-section of a potato from a book his father wrote called The Production of Field Crops. "By the time I was 15 or 16, when he sold the farm, I think that he realised" – a gentle laugh – "that any chance of my actually becoming a man of the soil was nil."

He describes his mother as "a consummate lady" who never, for example, wore trousers.

"I liked that in her," he says. "She had a very definite outlook on life. There were never any uncertainties on how anyone should behave. Not that she was terribly rigorous about it; it was just a way of conducting herself.

"My earliest vivid memory of her must have been when she was in her thirties. She had long, light brown hair and she would stand in front of a mirror and roll this hair up into a bun and fasten it with hairpins. And I would be just transfixed watching this occur. I always remember her as being quite beautiful, but then I was quite biased…" It was his mother who taught him to draw – his vignettes, pictures with extended captions, first appeared in Harper's in the late '70s – and, growing up, he wasn't sure whether he would become an artist or a writer. He also inherited her love of Dickens who, along with Zola and Balzac, remains one of his favourite writers. He remembers seeing two books by Thomas Wolfe in his home and being convinced that he must be a relation. Both parents always made him feel very loved. "I remember the feeling that I was going to do something terrific, which is a wonderful thing for a child to feel. It tends to encourage you to try things in cases that you would otherwise say, 'Oh, I couldn't do that … I wasn't meant for that.'"

When I ask him what has rattled him most in life, he cites the death of his father. He died, a long time before Wolfe's mother, in 1972. It's the first death of a parent that makes you feel as if the ground has been cut away from you, he says, and then you realise you can get through it. He quotes Dylan Thomas, "After the first death, there is no other"; and licks his sore, chapped lips. "I'll never forget what most moved me," he says. "It was not the thing which I dreaded – going down to the funeral parlour and seeing his corpse. That left me strangely unmoved. The corpse was embalmed. It was so unreal, I said to myself, 'That's not my father.' But when I came home and saw his cane hanging on the banister at the house, I was just devastated." Did you cry?

"I did." Do you cry much? "Not a great deal, although I love crying. I think it's wonderful. It's one of the best ways of getting rid of the things which are going to haunt you."

When he talks like this, Wolfe seems very human. And strangely enough, he doesn't make it awkward for you to ask intimate questions. But even now there is something remote about him; not distant, exactly, but submerged … like being in a room when the lights dim, just before a power cut. But tell him or show him something that tickles him and – boing! – he suddenly shines brighter, as though he has been recharged. He laughs out loud, old fogey that he is, to hear about the more outré features of the absurdly trendy Manhattan hotel I am staying in. When we discuss "buttocks décolletage"; an expression he coined in the early '60s for one of his early New Journalism pieces on Las Vegas, I offer him "the Essex cleavage"; and his eyes light up with mirth. But when I tell him that Ken Kesey, the whacked-out subject of Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, has been performing in London, he practically shoots out of his suit: "Really!!! Ken Kesey!!! Well, well, well…"

The New Journalism, I had thought, had been launched by one of Wolfe's writer's blocks. Esquire had sent him off to California, at his request, to investigate the "nutty-looking, crazy, baroque" customised car culture that had sprouted on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He spent two weeks there, but couldn't find a way into the subject. The managing editor told him to jot down some notes so that one of Esquire's in-house writers – oh, ignominy – could knock something into shape. He started typing at eight that night and the next morning he delivered his 49-page memorandum to the office – a collection of vignettes, scholarly odds and sods, notes, anything that came into his head. The editor struck off the "Dear Byron" at the top, and ran the rest barely altered under its title, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Wolfe says he wishes that he could take credit for inventing the genre, but two other writers were there before him: Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin. "And I was really quite bowled over by their talent," he says, "and thought I'd better get in on this, so I started doing it too." That may be so, but it is Wolfe's name that has come to be associated with New Journalism more than anyone else's, partly because he has been such a bullish advocate of it, going so far, in 1975, as to claim that it was the most important literature being written in America, and that the novel – or, at least the prevailing fashion among novelists – was all washed up. Outrage! However, he did leave a door open for himself, by suggesting that the process could also work in reverse: "I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism." The sort of novel, indeed, that became The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I wonder, two novels down, whether he sees himself as a novelist now. "There are days when I do, but I think – at heart – well, I know that I'm a reporter," he says. "And I don't mean that with false modesty. To me, reporting is such an exciting calling."

What an extraordinary man he is: a political conservative – he helped to usher in two terms of Ronald Reagan, moving in literary circles where you could only mention his name if you accompanied it with a snigger, and voted for George Bush – but the most democratic of writers, often choosing to explore proletarian or outsider cultures – the neon-sign designers of Las Vegas, the trippy hippies – with such an avid, non-judgmental absorption that he makes you feel they are as fascinating as the court of Versailles; and who draws every strand of society into his novels. A southern dandy who thrives in New York. Someone with a cool gaze, tilting at the foibles of modern man, and a sentimental heart.

At the end of our day, we make for the beach – a short drive away – for the last of the photos.

He walks creakily towards the water's edge, his trousers billowing in the evening breeze, hands in his pockets, one leg tilted, smiling faintly into the camera. He looks ghostlike, so wispy and insubstantial that you feel he could be blown away. A young father is building sandcastles with his children; a bronzed couple, bursting with rude health, splash around giggling in the waves; there's a jogger or two in the distance. And I'm thinking, if any of them asked me, looking at the old guy in the weird parchment suit, "Who in the name of God is that?", my honest answer would have to be, "You know, I really have no idea."

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.

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