Tom Wolfe Takes Miami's Pulse In 'Back To Blood'
Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 8:37 am
Tom Wolfe wrote his new novel, Back to Blood, entirely by hand. But the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities also says that wasn't entirely by choice — he'd rather have used a typewriter.
"Unfortunately, you can't keep typewriters going today — you have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked," Wolfe tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "There's a horrible search to try to find missing parts."
Back to Blood is set in Miami, which Wolfe describes as the only city where an immigrant community rose to dominate the political landscape in just over a generation. The novel deals with racial and ethnic conflict among the city's diverse inhabitants, including immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Russia, as well as the city's long-established African-American and Anglo communities. Its central character, the young Cuban-American police officer Nestor Camacho, struggles with his identity and the ire of his community after safely bringing a Cuban refugee down from the top of a ship's mast and arresting him before he could set foot on American soil.
"If you touched anything that is connected to the U.S., like a bridge, then you were considered a 'dry foot,' but if you came in by water and you didn't make it all the way in, you could be sent back," Wolfe says.
Wolfe is known for his association with the new journalism movement, which uses techniques of fiction, such as evocative scene descriptions and dialogue, to tell true stories. In writing Back to Blood — and for the first time — Wolfe allowed someone to follow him during his research. Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter, served as a tour guide and translator for Wolfe in Miami, and videotaped several trips. The result is a one-hour documentary called Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, which is airing this month on some public TV stations.
Wolfe says he was grateful for Corral's help, but he did warn Corral that his presence came at a price. "A reporter can not afford to have a camera around any sort of sensitive information gathering," he says. "It just puts the person off so badly."
According to Wolfe, that's why he's always felt that when a reporter is followed, "you're going to have a lot of boring stretches."
On choosing Miami as the setting for his novel
"I wanted to do [a] book on immigration. I was thinking of it even when I was doing my last book. At first, I was interested in the Vietnamese in California because they were spreading rapidly, at first around Los Angeles. Then one day I discovered they were up in San Jose, which is Northern California, to the extent that they were now publishing not only the San Jose Mercury [News] but the Viet Mercury. And I said, 'Hey, there must be a few people around here.' But unfortunately, I couldn't speak the language and it was just one group of immigrants. Then I heard about Florida. The first thing that caught my ear is that Miami is the only city — the only one I can find — in which people from a foreign country with a different language and a different culture have taken over a metropolitan area politically at the voting machine in slightly over one generation. Of course that's the Cubans."
On his sociological approach to writing
"This attention to status ... started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn't have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, 'Hey, here's the key. Here's the key to understanding life and all its forms.' And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you're by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching ... It's only when your life is in danger that you drop all that."
On the graphic real-life scene on which he based his portrayal of Miami's Columbus Day Regatta
"The regatta is actually a sailboat race and ends up on a rather barren little island called Elliott Key — it's about 60 miles south of Miami. When the regatta first began, after the race, all the crews and the owners and every[one] would get together and have a party. Well these parties began to get wilder and wilder, and people on the mainland began hearing about these Columbus Day Regatta parties. And so when I got there, there were easily more than 1,000 boats ... congregated around Elliott Key. I mean, 1,000 boats is a massive lot of structures in humanity, and they're waiting for the evening. And the police, until recently, didn't try to control things, so people would lash together boats, 12 in a row, which created one gigantic deck — you had to go up and down on the deck. And it became wilder and wilder and wilder, until finally they would be showing pornographic films on the sails of schooners, and they would in essence have orgies right there on the decks. I couldn't believe this ...
"I saw it personally. I stayed at this thing for a very long time. It has cooled down a little bit 'cause there is a police presence now. But nevertheless — oh, for example, I don't want to go into too graphic detail, the bare breasts began [at] about 5:30, and then we go on from there."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Decades ago, our guest Tom Wolfe pioneered what became known as new journalism, using techniques of fiction - such as evocative scene descriptions and dialogue - to tell true stories. He used those storytelling methods in his books "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff."
Wolfe turned to fiction in 1987, with the bestseller "Bonfire of the Vanities," a sprawling story of social relations and racial tensions in New York City. His subsequent novels are "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
Wolfe's new novel, "Back to Blood," is set in Miami and deals with racial and ethnic conflict among the city's diverse inhabitants, which include immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Russia, as well as the long-established African-American and Anglo communities. Its central character, a young Cuban-American police officer, struggles with his identity after a heroic act on the job makes him a traitor in the eyes of his community.
A one-hour documentary about Wolfe's research in Miami called "Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood," is airing on some PBS stations. Tom Wolfe spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Tom Wolfe, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
TOM WOLFE: Thank you.
DAVIES: When you wrote "Bonfire of the Vanities," it was this remarkable picture of social currents in New York. And in your novel "A Man in Full," you took us to Atlanta. This is about Miami. What drew you to South Florida?
WOLFE: I wanted to do a book on immigration. I was thinking of it even when I was doing my last book. At first, I was interested in the Vietnamese in California because they were spreading rapidly, at first around Los Angeles. Then one day, I discovered they were up in San Jose, which is Northern California, to an extent that they were now publishing not only the San Jose Mercury, which is an old newspaper, but the Viet Mercury.
And I said, hey, there must be some - a few people around here. But, unfortunately, I couldn't speak the language, and it was just one group of immigrants. And then I heard about Florida. The first thing that caught my ear was that Miami is the only city - the only one I can find - in which people from a foreign country with a different language and a different culture have taken over a metropolitan area politically at the voting machine in slightly over one generation. Of course, that's the Cubans.
Right. So you have the Cubans, which are so powerful politically. And I was surprised to read more than half the police force is Cuban. Right?
WOLFE: Oh, yes. Slightly more than 50 percent are Cuban. Another 20 percent are Latins. They're from somewhere in Latin America. Eighteen percent are American black. And just 12 percent are what is known there as Anglo - really meaning American-born whites. And that pretty well reflects the composition of the population as a whole.
DAVIES: I want to ask you about - the central character of this book is a young Cuban name Nestor Camacho. He is on the police force. You want to just give us a little profile of him?
WOLFE: Yeah. Nestor Camacho lives in Hialeah, in one of these little casitas with his parents and his grandparents. His older siblings have, by getting married, moved out of the house. And he is a young policeman. He was actually a pretty modest, conscientious policeman. He turned out to be pretty good, and he seemed to be pretty steady in tough, dangerous situations. But his horizon really was not much beyond being a good cop and marrying his girlfriend of three years named Magdalena, who was absolutely gorgeous.
And this was his life, and he never realized that that kind of a rather comfortable, conventional life could explode. Again, the police force was heavily Cuban, as he was second-generation Cuban, and he seemed to fit in perfectly.
DAVIES: Well, of course, he's a character in a Tom Wolfe novel. So what he doesn't know is he's going to get involved in some big events, here. And there's this incident that sort of sets the plot in motion. Nestor is on the Marine Patrol Unit.
DAVIES: And they get a call that this bedraggled Cuban refugee who's been dropped off by some boat has shimmied up the tall mast of a sailboat that's parked near a causeway. And he's at the top at this bosun's chair atop this mast pleading for someone on the causeway to help get him, because once he gets to dry land he gets asylum. But if he's in the water, he can be sent back to Cuba.
And then Nestor affects - I won't give away all the details here, but, I mean, he affects a heroic rescue of this guy, which makes him a hero. He saves the guy's life. But it also makes him a traitor in the eyes of the Cuban community, because the guy's probably going to get sent back to Cuba because he didn't make land. It's a fascinating - it's a really gripping description, and I'll let people get the details from your book.
But I'm wondering, what, is there a particular - what inspired that incident?
WOLFE: It's the entire dry foot/wet foot policies of the United States government. It's not Miami. This was all done in the wake of Castro and all the people who wanted to escape from Cuba and so on. And it was a great, if you will, public relations coup and also rather humanitarian thing to allow as many in as, you know, could be accommodated.
How exactly this dry foot/wet foot thing began, that point I don't know. But if you had reached land - and this is actually for any Cuban anywhere in America - if you had reached land you could not be sent back to Cuba. You might be prosecuted for some vile crime that you had committed, but you couldn't be sent back.
And if you touched anything that is connected to the United States, like a bridge, then you were considered a dry foot. But if you came in by water and you didn't make it all the way in, you could be sent back. Actually, there were these people who came in as wet foots, or tried to come in, would be questioned by the Coast Guard and given a chance to prove that they had left because they were immediate danger.
DAVIES: One of the details that caught my eye as I was reading this, this character Nestor Camacho is a police officer, and you say that he's learned the cop stare.
DAVIES: What is the cop stare? Where did you observe that?
WOLFE: When I see it I recognize it. And I've, you know, not all of my relationships with the police have been all that polite as they have been when I'm reporting. It's a look that says, in some way - I don't know how you move the muscles - it says, look, out here on this street I am the only authority. Once I arrest you and drag you in to the precinct there will be other authorities who will take over, but here on the street I rule.
That is the look. And I see it over and over again. It's a great technique for keeping the peace. In effect, it says you don't have a chance against me. For one thing, I'm armed. And it works.
DAVIES: One of the memorable descriptions in this book, is of something called the Columbus Day Regatta which I hadn't heard of but is a real thing in Miami.
DAVIES: And I know that you visited this. You want to just tell us a little bit about this? About your...
WOLFE: Yeah, I'll tell you.
DAVIES: ...visit to the Columbus Day Regatta?
WOLFE: Yeah. I'll tell this as briefly as I can. The regatta is actually a sailboat race. It ends up in a rather barren little island called Elliott Key. It's about, oh, 60 miles south of Miami. When the regatta first began, after the race, all the crews and the owners and everything would get together and have a party. Well, these parties began to get wilder and wilder, and people on the mainland began hearing about these Columbus Day Regatta parties.
And so when I got there, there were easily more than a thousand boats had congregated around Elliott Key. I mean, a thousand boats is a massive lot of structures and humanity. And they were waiting for the evening and the police, up until recently, didn't try to control things. People would lash together boats, 12 in a row, which created one gigantic deck.
You had to go up and down on the deck, but... And it became wilder, and wilder and wilder until finally they would be showing pornographic films on the sails of schooners and they would, in essence, have orgies right there on the decks. I couldn't believe this.
DAVIES: You saw this personally?
WOLFE: So I saw it personally. As I say, oh, I mean I stayed at this thing for a very long time. It has cooled down a bit, because there is a police presence now, but nevertheless - or, for example, I won't go in too graphic detail, but the bare breasts began about 5:30 PM and then we go on from there. It's absolutely extraordinary.
DAVIES: Do you think it says anything about Miami culture?
WOLFE: Well, it probably does. John Timoney, who was deputy commissioner of police in New York, then became chief of police in Philadelphia, and then became chief of police in Miami - so he knows the East Coast pretty well - he said to me New York is the city of money. Washington D.C. is the city of power. Miami is the city of sex. And I haven't checked out all the other places to see if that's really true, but there is a little bit of hedonism in the air.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Wolfe. His new novel is "Back to Blood." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with novelist Tom Wolfe. His new book set in Miami is called "Back to Blood." When you were on this show 25 years ago Terry Gross asked you would you ever let somebody follow you, spend, you know, a few days with you and observe what you do and write about your technique? And at the time you said, I don't think so.
But here, in fact, this reporter, Oscar Corral, who showed you around Miami, videotaped a lot and has produced a film doing just that - looking at the Tom Wolfe method. How do you feel about somebody else capturing you here?
WOLFE: Well, I was very grateful to him because he'd done a lot for me and I wasn't going to say no. But I did tell him a reporter cannot afford to have a camera around in any sort of sensitive information gathering. It just puts the other person off so badly. That's why I've always felt following a reporter around, or following a writer around, is you're going to have a lot of boring stretches in which the poor guy's hunched over his desk trying to figure out what to do next, tapping his forehead.
I think he did a good job. He showed me in the midst of reporting scenes.
DAVIES: He wrote, I believe, that you wrote this book completely by hand. Is that right?
WOLFE: Yes. If I had my choice I would be writing by typewriter. I worked on newspapers for 10 years. I typed with the touch system and unfortunately, you can't keep typewriters going today. You have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked. You have to - it's a horrible search to try to find missing parts. So I went to the computer.
And the computer kept winking at me. You know, like, OK, big boy. I'm ready. Let's have some action here.
DAVIES: Winking, like a light would flash or the screen would change?
WOLFE: No. There was little - no. Those little lights were coming on. Just to put in a piece of paper, to use typewriter talk, you have to go through about three steps. I mean, it drove me nuts. The fact is, I was born too early. That's all that means.
DAVIES: You know, in so many of your books you write these wonderful descriptions of characters, kind of, struggling in changing times. You ever picture yourself writing a description of Tom Wolfe?
WOLFE: Actually, I do and I think I would write of him, Tom Wolfe, as this rather old fashioned figure, all these damn white suits he has and all this stuff. And, oh, you ought to see his shoes. Oh, they look like spats. They're not spats. But that's the kind of thing you run into when you run into Tom Wolfe. I could do a good job on myself, I think.
DAVIES: You know, when you write about a character, one of the things I notice is that you're - you know, and you're using this character to examine the particular culture or subculture in which the character lives. And one of the things I notice is that you find these subtle ways in which status and pecking order are defined in that subculture. The little things. And I'm just -is that - how do you get that? Do you ask that question? Is it just careful observation?
How cops distinguish one another - or strippers, or whoever?
WOLFE: This attention to status or status, however you like to pronounce it, started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies which was a mixture of different disciplines. But one that you were forced to take was sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline.
It didn't have the noble history of English and History as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, hey, here's the key. Here's the key to understanding life and all its forms. And the great theorist of all the status, or status, theories was a German named Max Weber. From that time on I said this, obviously, is the way to analyze people in all their manifestations.
I mean, my theory is that every moment, even when you're by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if somebody were watching. Well, anyway, you can think about it. It really is true. It's only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.
DAVIES: And at 81, what are the status requirements for your life?
WOLFE: Well, I'm - in the, oh, just the last month I've seen myself referred to, oh, quite often, as an octogenarian. And I always say, look, that's a hobby of mine. It's not an occupation. It's something, you know, I like to do at night. But I think it doesn't really matter how old you are if your health is all right and your mind hasn't gone yet.
DAVIES: Well, Tom Wolfe, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
WOLFE: Dave, you're more than welcome and if you see Terry Gross, tell her hello. It was just 25 short years ago that I first appeared on this program.
DAVIES: I promise I will.
GROSS: And hello back to you, Tom Wolfe, and thank you for being back on the show. Tom Wolfe spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. You can read an excerpt of Wolfe's new book "Back to Blood" on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.