Wolfe samples Miami's complexity

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008

MIAMI - So this time the guy with the white suits and dazzling spats is wading through the cultural intersections of Miami. Already, Tom Wolfe has visited several times as tourist, sponge, anthropologist and journalist. Always journalist.

Dennis Van Tine / Abacausa.com
Dennis Van Tine / Abacausa.com

He has done lunch at Versailles, dinner at The Forge, drinks at the Setai, culture at Art Basel.

At 76, the best-selling author is writing a novel about Miami, peering through his vintage magnifying glass at a place easy to misinterpret, a place at once colorful and mired in grays. Miami is growing, still writing its narrative and permanently changed by immigration. Here, more than half the population is foreign-born.

"A big writer like Tom Wolfe who is interested in big stories with big themes would be attracted to the story of Miami in all its complexity," Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International, offered one recent afternoon as word of Wolfe sightings spreads.

"Back to Blood," Wolfe's new work, will explore race and crime, sex and class, plus immigration, a complex issue the author has been hankering to tackle since the 1980s when he pounded out "The Bonfire of the Vanities," the electrifying saga that skewered New York's pageant of Wall Street millionaires, street shysters and race warriors.

"I would tell people I was working on a book about immigration," Wolfe told a Miami audience in October, "and they would say, 'That's fascinating,' and then their heads would go, pffft. Now, suddenly, it's a big thing."

Wolfe has made an astounding career of watching, absorbing, then testifying on the human condition. In best-sellers such as "Bonfire" and "A Man in Full," he has chronicled intriguing tales from along the great fault lines of race, class and wealth.

"It's Tom Wolfe writing the kind of novel that only Tom Wolfe, among the living American writers, can do," Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown and Co., which bought North American rights for a reported $7 million, told The New York Times. "He's looking at a society in huge flux and the combinations of ambition and class and all the different human drives that make cities fascinating places."

Over the years, Wolfe has become famous for parachuting into a city and interpreting its ethos, wonders and flaws. He characteristically writes about people who struggle with their morals, ethics and prejudices. Wolfe carries a reporter's notebook but takes few notes. At day's end, he pours his observations and impressions into a journal. A notoriously laborious writer, he worked on "A Man in Full," set in Atlanta, for more than a decade.

"I think it's great that he has chosen to focus on Miami. As Andy Warhol said, 'Press is press,"' said prominent art collector Mera Rubell.

Last month, Wolfe joined the parade of contemporary art enthusiasts who descended on the city for Art Basel to undertake what was unmistakably "Back to Blood" research.

The art fair clearly made an impression.

"This is the end of capitalism as we know it," Wolfe told The Art Newspaper as he took in the Basel droves, "waiting for the doors to open like some half-off sale at Macy's."

Paul George, historian and Miami Dade College professor, was among the first to witness Wolfe at work during his Basel visit, after the writer "reached out to me and wanted to talk about Miami's history and its ethnicities."

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