Back from Miami: Tom Wolfe talks up his new novel

Like a prize-winning reporter, fame follows Tom Wolfe, even when he swaps the white suit for a blue blazer, even when he visits some strip club in Miami as research - yes, research - for his new novel.

"I was the only man with a necktie," he says with a chuckle.

Millions know the meaning of "Tom Wolfe": "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "The Right Stuff," the "Me" decade and "radical chic." At age 81, his hair is thinned and his posture stooped, but the face remains impish and his manner wide-eyed and boyish at all the amazing things that happen.

His latest scoops appear in "Back to Blood, his first novel in eight years. It's another big city tale in the tradition of "Bonfire." "Back to Blood" features Wolfe's usual cocktail of sex, class and color, from a Cuban-American policeman to a Russian oligarch.

You don't have to ask what Wolfe's been up to the past few years. For the most part, it's in the book. Not just a strip club, but City Hall and Little Havana, the Miami Art Museum and Fisher Island. A favorite memory was when police let him ride on a "Safe Boat."

"These things race across the water at 45 miles an hour, which is fast when you're on the water, and these boats are unsinkable. Nobody has ever been able to turn one over. The bottom of the boat was like an enormous mattress. It was built for safety, and that gave me the idea for the whole first chapter of the book," he says.

Wolfe is a National Book Award winner, a best-seller and a mixed bag. He is a giant among nonfiction writers, but the rap on him as a novelist is that he thinks wide and not deep. The New Yorker's James Wood disparaged the new novel's "yards of flapping exaggeration." The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani thought the story "filled with heaps of contrivance and cartoonish antics," while praising Wolfe's "new and improved ability to conjure fully realized people."

Wolfe doesn't like to admit it, but reviews get to him. He remembers John Updike panning "A Man in Full" as "entertainment, not literature," and John Irving calling the same book "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." Wolfe's response: He does aim to please (and provoke), and he does think like a newspaperman. His prescription for the American novel remains what he has suggested for decades: Don't just sit there. Get out and report your story.

Wolfe sees his job as more than just filling notepads; he has figured out how it adds up. After hanging around with hippies and astronauts, bankers and cops, he has concluded the same questions nag them all: What will my peers think? How am I doing?

Wolfe is the least sedentary of writers and seeing him walk gamely around his apartment makes you wonder if he wasn't ready for one of those quiet, introspective novels he despises. But the ideas keep coming. Wolfe says he has at least six projects to keep him busy, including a nonfiction book on Charles Darwin.

"There are still so many things I don't know about the city and I'd just like to see what's out there," he says. "The Latin-American population has increased enormously since 'Bonfire' and Wall Street has changed enormously. I'll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what I find."


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