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.
“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.
“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.”