“I was first interested in the Vietnamese in California, but I couldn’t begin to speak Vietnamese,” Wolfe says. “Then it dawned on me one day that Miami is the only city in the world where people from another country, with another language and another culture, have taken over at the voting booth. They don’t meld the way immigrants have in other cities. ”
Not surprisingly, Miami held plenty of surprises for him: the bacchanal of the Columbus Day Regatta (“I have a feeling I made it too clean”); surprising racial tensions (“I didn’t realize there was a status difference between darker and lighter people in the Caribbean”); the transformation of Hialeah, which he calls “the real Little Havana” in the book.
“I didn’t realize what Hialeah was now,” he admits. “In my mind it was still the racetrack, which was the most beautiful social capital in the world. ... And I didn’t realize I was going to feel guilty. In New York, when I went into a store where Spanish was the language, I’d think, ‘Can’t they get up to par here?’ But I was just terrible in the Latin stores in Miami. It was the same thing in the Russian stores. I couldn’t buy anything without pointing at it.”
There are perils to putting Miami on the page; there’s a lot here to get wrong, so some authors find ways of making the task easier. Russell Banks, who lives in South Florida part-time, wrote about Miami in his novel Continental Drift and again in The Lost Memory of Skin, in which he created a fictionalized Miami called Calusa while using real-life events including the banishment of sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
“It’s a matter of changing the names not necessarily to protect the innocent,” Banks says. “I feel freer to invent as a result, when I can use the reality of the place as a jumping off point rather than making a portrait of it. ... Everybody who knows Miami and lives here knows the history of the Tuttle, but I did a book tour for six weeks in Canada and Europe, and those readers saw it as a story about human beings, not about Miami but about the human condition. ... Nobody criticized me for not representing Miami accurately.”
Wolfe wants to believe he has captured Miami accurately, but he’s skeptical of fiction’s ability to convey reality. A New Journalist to the end, he believes nonfiction is the path to the truth.
“I still think today nonfiction is the best general literature in America,” he says. “Fiction’s only advantage is you can bring different people together. But I really think overall characters are captured better in nonfiction. ... In Master of Fine Arts writing, they’re hanging on to this old idea that’s been preached so long, that the only valid thing is to write about yourself. But look at Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden. They are just at the top of the literary game, but the literary community doesn’t even consider them ”
Wolfe plans to talk about all of this and more Sunday night, and chances are that he’ll show up in one of his bespoke suits. But Miami has opened his eyes to a potential new fashion statement.
“I realize now that a tie is kind of stupid,” he jokes. “They were invented in England, where it was cold and they had no central heat. The guayabera is the answer, no bothering with a tie or jacket. So I’m busy trying to come up with an American guayabera.”