Among the amusing sights in Oscar Corral’s breezy documentary Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood: The legendary author — sometimes clad in his iconic white suit, sometimes not — learning about Santeria in a strip-mall botanica in Hialeah; getting soaked by a drunken cannonball-diver during the Columbus Day Regatta in Biscayne Bay, which he calls “the most hedonistic event” he’s ever been to; and dropping into the Dress for Success clothing store in Overtown, where shopkeeper Sonia Jacobson advises “If you don’t speak Spanish, it can be a bit of a problem [in Miami].”
Shot over a period of four years, from 2008 through August, the movie follows Wolfe during various visits to South Florida, when he was conducting research for his upcoming novel Back to Blood, due Oct. 23 (Wolfe will also kick off this year’s Miami International Book Fair on Nov. 11). The book promises to do for Miami what Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York and A Man in Full did for Atlanta: present a panoramic, top-to-bottom portrait of a multi-cultural city and all its different ethnic factions, some of which don’t always play nice with each other.
But the movie focuses more on Wolfe’s particular brand of research, which is so specific that in one scene he draws a sketch of the interior of a home in Hialeah and gets the precise dimensions of the property’s backyard. In a review of the book published in The New Yorker this week, a critic wrote “[Wolfe’s] argument presumes that reality is always more significant than anything the novelist can invent; he credits the finality of the real above the debatability of the real.” The film captures the unobtrusive way in which Wolfe reports his subjects, and he also talks about what led him to choose Miami as the setting for his book (he wanted to write something about immigration, and as Dr. Paul George points out in the film, Miami is the No. 1 immigrant city in the world.)
Wolfe’s relationship with the filmmakers as seen in the movie is warm and open — he seems to welcome the attention, and occasionally even relies on Corral, a former Herald reporter, as a translator — and the writer is unfailingly polite to and curious about everyone he meets. If anything, the movie feels too short — Wolfe is an engaging screen presence — but it serves as a perfect appetizer for the book, as well as an informed snapshot of the nature of reporting and research: You have to get out there and talk to people.
“I think all of Miami will stand up and applaud and scream with delight. Miami will love it,” Wolfe says of his novel. But former Miami Herald executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal warns, “Communities are often not happy with the way those books of his come out.” Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood makes you eager to find out.