NEW YORK — 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 said with a chuckle, back in his trademark white during a recent interview at his Manhattan apartment. “They seat you in these little couches, and it was like a furniture show room – all these pieces of furniture would stretch long for maybe 40 feet. So I’m sitting there and this guy, must have been a bouncer, came over and said, ‘Hey, you’re Tom Wolfe aren’t you?’ ”
Millions know the meaning of “Tom Wolfe”: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff,” the “Me” decade and “radical chic,” the punched-up prose and the blaze of white. At 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 – the kinds of stories, he likes to say, that you can’t make up.
His latest scoops appear in “Back to Blood,” his first novel in eight years. It features Wolfe’s usual cocktail of sex, class and color, from a Cuban-American policeman to a WASP newspaper editor 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” around Biscayne Bay.
“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 said, adding that another highlight was witnessing the Columbus Day Regatta.
“Unfortunately, when I went, the police had begun to crack down. It was no longer an orgy on the water. They used to line up boats, as many as 10-12 boats lashed together, so you had one enormous uneven deck. And they’d have really wild parties, ending with boys and girls down on the deck having at it, and pornographic movies on the big sails of the schooners.”
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 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? It’s all about status, something “on everybody’s mind all the time.”
A believer that one should never exclude himself from his own theory, Wolfe is an old-fashioned striver, a Richmond, Va., native who was class president in high school and ran the student newspaper. He wanted to be a Great American Writer, in the Greatest American City, New York.
He hustled and wrote and dressed his way to the top. His apartment is a shining wonder, 12 rooms on the 14th floor of a doorman building on the Upper East Side. Depending on which way you turn your head, you could catch a view of Central Park or a lampshade in his office designed after the author’s signature Panama hat.
He’s been a novelist for 30 years, but he is also defined as a founder of the “New Journalism,” the now standard art of applying the dialog, scene-setting, descriptive language of fiction to nonfiction. His peers have included Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and the late Nora Ephron. His current favorites include Mark Bowden, best known for “Black Hawk Down,” and “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis.
“He is one of my heroes,” said Lewis, who has been reading Wolfe since he was a boy. “He led the way in showing how much could be crammed into a work of nonfiction.”
Wolfe says he has at least six projects to keep him busy, including a nonfiction book on Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists and a fictional return to New York.
“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 said. “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.”