Mary: As for adjectives, I read somewhere that for every adjective you add, you reduce the effectiveness of your image by 50%. So let’s say the first adjective gives you a good 100% image; add another and you’re already down to 50%; add a third and now it’s at 25%; and so forth. It’s sort of like when you describe a person’s physical features or what they’re wearing: one or two “telling details” will fix the person in the reader’s mind, but keep adding detail upon detail (as 19th-century authors used to), and pretty soon the reader is overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to focus. And keep in mind that however vividly you describe a character or an outfit or a car or a house or a tree or whatever, the reader is going to picture that object the way s/he wants to picture it anyway, so save yourself the trouble and get on with telling the story.
It sounds like the Tom Wolfe book you’re reading errs on the side of too much descriptive prose, and you can see the result: you’re skipping passages.
I forgot who said it, but one author put it well when he said “I leave out the parts people skip.”