After he wrote his last novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe was curious how the residents of Sparta, nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, had reacted to the book. Charlotte Simmons was partially set in the small town, and the meticulous Wolfe spent time there researching everything from the way people spoke to the agricultural industry (Christmas tree farming). When he ran into a teacher from Sparta at a conference, he mentioned that he’d never received any feedback on the book from the people he had met.
“What makes you think they read it?” the teacher asked.
All this is to say that Wolfe, who kicks off Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, doesn’t really know how Miamians are going to react to his outrageous new novel, Back to Blood, set in a wildly hyperbolic but undeniably recognizable Miami full of cultural clashes and social climbers, power struggles and breathless sexual antics.
Back to Blood examines the erratic paths of a series of broadly drawn characters, including a young Cuban-American cop who runs afoul of various ethnic groups, a lascivious doctor who treats porn addicts, and a Russian oligarch who may have stocked a museum named after him with forgeries. The story rambles from the frothing millionaires rushing to buy trendy works at Art Basel Miami Beach to the cozy casitas of Hialeah to the strip clubs of Sunny Isles. It is big, and it is wild — a lot like Miami itself.
“It’s not that there’s horrible, disruptive friction in Miami,” Wolfe says. “I just had a picture of a melting pot where different pieces of steel had never melted.”
Reviews have been mixed, including an aggressive slam from Wolfe’s longtime nemesis, the New Yorker, (in which James Wood referred to Wolfe’s prose as “yards of flapping exaggeration”). But fairgoers clearly don’t care what Wood or any cranky New York critics think: Wolfe’s Sunday event at Miami Dade College sold out quickly (there will be a standby line for anyone who shows up without tickets). Perhaps Miami readers will react more positively to the book; said former Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Edward Villella: “I really enjoyed reading it. Having experienced Miami for a quarter of a century, it was that much more fascinating to me.”
“I can’t imagine anyone living here not wanting to read the book, just so you can see Miami through the eyes of a writer and social observer like Tom Wolfe,” says Mitchell Kaplan, book fair co-chair. “He’s such a cultural icon.”
Wolfe doesn’t worry too much about the criticism, though he admits it crosses his mind. “I wish I were like Arnold Bennett, a British writer who used to be quite popular. He was often criticized negatively by the literary establishment. He said, ‘Oh, I don’t read my reviews, I just measure them.’ I’d love to be able to say that,” he says, laughing.
“No doubt what somebody writes, they meant, so I never quarrel with that part.” As for the New Yorker: “I’ve been through this so many times with so many books, I’m kind of used to it by now. There’s nothing you can do about it, anyway.”
As a novelist, Wolfe is famous for turning his New Journalism-fueled gaze on a place, studying the hell out of it and writing novels that don’t necessarily flatter the inhabitants. He has targeted New York City ( Bonfire of the Vanities) and Atlanta ( A Man in Full). Having spent six months reporting from Havana for The Washington Post in 1960, he has long been intrigued by Cuban history; add to that an interest in the subject of immigration, and Miami seemed a natural fit.