Tom Wolfe on His New Novel Back to Blood and His Fascination With the Down-and-Dirty Pecking Order

Photo: Tina Barney/New York Magazine

Amid the artful clutter of his apartment fourteen stories above East 79th Street, Tom Wolfe is just another bright, eccentric antique. Behind him are mauve hydrangeas and a mauve poster for Princeps cigars, which bring out the violet in his papery eyelids and veined hands and set off the white (of course!) of his fitted linen suit. Dark blue is today’s underplumage—navy shirt with white stripes, navy dots on white tie, white dots on navy socks, and the usual two-tone shoes.

“Kipling is today such an underrated poet—in my humble opinion,” Wolfe says, with that slightly southern softness so unlike his writing. He’s trying to explain what Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and later turned into a hymn, is doing in the brain of a muscle-bound Cuban-American cop in Wolfe’s panoramic Miami joyride of a fourth novel, Back to Blood.

But … he can’t! So instead … Tom Wolfe sings!! “God of our fathers known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle line”—wavering, reinflating—“Be-neath whose awful hand we hold! Dominion over palm and pine”—words drawn out, then lopped off with a throat snuffl­e—“Lord God of hosts, be with us yet”—crisply!—“Lest we forget!—and then it—achem, unhughugh—goes down into a register I can’t hit.” He tries a faux-bass tremolo: “Lest weyeyeee forgeeet.”

“Kipling’s saying we’ve forgotten what the real qualities of life are,” Wolfe continues, without a break for applause. “We’re so wrapped up in all the things we have.” Wolfe sang it gleefully as a morning prayer in his Episcopalian high school in Richmond, Virginia, seduced by its imperial bombast rather than its warning against hubris. “It was a great way to start the day.” As for how it ended up inside the head of Officer Nestor Camacho, gazing upon a Haitian-American 21-year-old in a Miami ghetto, Wolfe draws a blank. “I may have dropped it in from Mars. It probably shouldn’t be in there.”

Wolfe often jokes about his alien origins. Whether chronicling acid-droppers, chic radicals, art-world charlatans, macho astronauts, or Wall Street Masters of the Universe, he has always impersonated a character all his own: a reporter who begs for answers but never pleads for acceptance. As he’s said, “It is much more effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.”

Take those suits, which he once called “a marvelous, harmless form of aggression.” The great thing about them was that they were out of place everywhere, an all-purpose signal of self-alienation. He didn’t don beads for Ken Kesey or turtlenecks for the Black Panthers. That distance set him apart from other pioneering journalists, too. “Wolfe’s problem is that he’s too crusty to participate in his stories,” wrote Hunter Thompson, the most extreme of the participatory journalists. “The people he feels comfortable with are dull as stale dog shit, and the people who seem to fascinate him as a writer are so weird that they make him nervous.”

But Wolfe started wearing white suits to make other people nervous—wags of the Establishment looking down their noses at the antsy arriviste. He bought his first, white silk-tweed, shortly after coming to New York, in the summer of 1962. But it was too heavy, so he ended up wearing it in December. When people sniffed at his faux pas, he took their scorn as a badge of honor, and he’s donned a version of the suit ever since—throwing on a blue blazer when he wants to go “incognito.”

Back to Blood opens from the POV of a Wasp “to the point of satire,” who’s been flown in by the newspaper syndicate from Chicago to run the Miami Herald. “Thus,” Wolfe writes, “did Edward T. Topping IV land in the middle of a street brawl on a saucer from Mars.” And thus did Tom Wolfe find himself in a thrumming polyglot city where no one is more alien than a white-suited Wasp. But unlike Topping, Wolfe was doing it on purpose, satirizing himself before anyone else got the chance.

Down in Miami doing his research, he thrived on the margins. In New York, though, life is more complicated. Wolfe switched to fiction 25 years ago because he envied its power, and because he wanted to change the novel—to bring “the dirt of everyday life” to a form mired in insular fables. At the height of a career spent dissecting status pretensions for sport, he staked his own reputation on nothing less than a sea change in how novelists wrote the story of America, hoping to single-handedly spawn a great revival of the social novel as practiced by Zola, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis.

But even as he doubled down on that bet with every subsequent novel and manifesto, fiction went the other way, growing more intimate and fragmented. Realism reigns today in bookstores and awards ceremonies, but it doesn’t look much like Back to Blood. Fetishistic social detail of the kind Wolfe lusts for proliferates instead in nonfiction and cable TV. Wolfe’s sprawling fiction entertained millions and enriched his family, but did little to move the literary center closer to his margins. Now he has an apartment as lavish as those he once satirized, but without quite the stature of their occupants. And no one could be immune to that kind of disappointment, not even a white-suited status-seeker who was always so good at puncturing the vanity of others.

Wolfe was still recovering from the tepid reaction to his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, the worst-reviewed and lowest-selling of his books, when he lit on the subject of immigration. Miami, he realized, was “the only metropolitan area which is ruled politically by people from another country”—that is, Cuban-Americans. “If I go into a shop where nobody speaks English, I always feel I’m at fault. I’m the one who’s not with it.”

It was also the city to which he had easy access, thanks to his old friend John Timoney, a cop from New York who became the chief of the Miami Police Department. A couple of people he’d met through Timoney were happy to play tour guide. One was Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter who had been hounded by fellow Cuban-Americans after exposing waste and fraud in an anti-Castro government-funded program. Another was a sweet Miami sergeant named Angel Calzadilla, who later died of cystic fibrosis. (Back to Blood is dedicated to him and to Sheila, Wolfe’s wife of 34 years.)

Long before he wrote fiction, Wolfe told an interviewer he liked to figure out a town by looking at a map and dividing it up by class. Miami, with its Little Havana and its Little Haiti, its Jewish retirement castles and South Beach penthouses and Russian strip clubs and African-American ghettos, was sociocultural catnip. Back to Blood is fiction as recombination of fact.

From his sources, Wolfe cobbled together Nestor Camacho, a cop who rescues a Cuban refugee by climbing the mast of a ship using only his arms. (Wolfe swears he could do this in his twenties.) When the refugee is detained by the Coast Guard, Nestor incurs the wrath of his neighbors in Hialeah, which is, Wolfe tells us, the real Little Havana. Nestor bumbles into a series of scandals that lead the mayor to call him “a one-man race riot”—Wolfe ranges through every ethnic rift in town—before teaming up with a reporter to run down a Russian art-forgery ring.

Wolfe allowed Corral to film a documentary on his fieldwork. The result makes an excellent advertisement for Wolfe’s methods. Hunter Thompson may have mistaken Wolfe’s distance for discomfort, because this reporter looks supremely at ease on his rounds, absorbing hard-luck refugee stories and yacht tours with the same patient bemusement and basking in the occasional celebrity treatment. Wolfe had closed-door meetings with then-mayor Manny Diaz; plied the waters of the hedonistic after-party of the Columbus Day regatta; was seated in the VIP area of a strip club; witnessed the stampede that opens Miami Art Basel; visited Santeria shops; was mistaken for a shaman at a strip mall. In the process he culled the kind of squeamish, disorienting scenes—“CROTCH thung TAIL thung CRACK thung PERI thung NEUM thung,” runs a strip-club passage—that will surely put him back in the running for the Guardian’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (I Am Charlotte Simmons took the 2004 prize.)

In the documentary, the writer who chalks up his success to “information compulsion” comes off as a bit of a showboat himself. Corral remembers trying to guide Wolfe down a steep ladder into a dinghy, worrying he might be held accountable for a great man’s demise. Then, suddenly, Wolfe kicked his legs out, did two quick dips with his arms on a ladder rung, and eased his way down smiling. He says he’s only an octogenarian “in my spare time,” and works out every day if his schedule allows it—elliptical, biceps, triceps, abdominals. Asked if he suffers from that great fatal flaw of every Wolfe character, status anxiety, he says, “Only when I work in the gym.” Then: “No, I’m kidding … I certainly do not exclude myself.”

Wolfe was always a jock. Coming out of Washington and Lee University, he went semi-pro as a baseball pitcher. But a scout told him his curves and sinkers weren’t enough. “We’re not out here for subtleties, nuances of play,” Wolfe was told. “We’re out here to find people who can knock the player’s head off with a fastball.”

Wolfe went to grad school, at Yale, instead, and soaked up sociology—especially Max Weber’s theories of status (an old-fashioned touchstone he still cites in every third sentence). But academia looked too predictable; the bohemian life didn’t appeal to him either. He just wasn’t a joiner. So he went into journalism, including the New York Herald Tribune Sunday supplement that would become this magazine.

“You get one chance with a Sunday supplement,” he says. “People pick it up, look at one piece—that’ll be yours—and throw it away. So I began to think up techniques.” To imitate the sound of a roulette wheel, he repeated the word, “Hernia hernia ­hernia …” just enough times to force the reader to turn the page. He opened another story with a catcall. The repetitions, the ellipses, the onomatopoeia: All the markers of Wolfe’s stylistic DNA were adaptive mutations to a competitive climate, search-­engine optimization for the typewriter age.

Wolfe’s early articles were collected in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which Kurt Vonnegut rated an “excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention.” Then came The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a road trip with the Merry Pranksters that felt telecast straight from the addled brains of the druggies themselves. It was reporting as ventriloquism, and shuttled Wolfe to the head of what was coming to be known as “the New Journalism.” He co-edited a 1973 anthology under that title. In its introduction, he argued that novelists had turned their back on social reality, leaving him and his fellow contributors—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and the like—to fill the void with fact.

The ridiculous facts of New York’s social swirl were fodder enough for a born satirist. His article “Tiny Mummies!” eviscerated William Shawn’s New Yorker. In “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” Wolfe crashed a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers held in Leonard Bernstein’s thirteen-room Park Avenue apartment. And in two books he argued that art and then architecture were created and brokered by people more concerned with status than with truth or beauty. In a city obsessed with social standing, Tom Wolfe played the foppish court jester, the only one who could look into the eyes of the king and tell him he was naked.

The pose depended on being ubiquitous and fitting in nowhere. And yet, there was one club he longed to join. The Great American Novel was an almost laughably predictable pursuit for a man who couldn’t stop saying that New Journalism was the reporter’s revenge on novelists. But the opportunity to show up the snobbish Establishment on its own home field was irresistible.

Wolfe had been contracted for a novel alongside his very first collection, in 1964. Not much later, he conceived of a grand New York City pageant called Vanity Fair, a twentieth-century answer to Thackeray’s London satire. The essay “Radical Chic” had begun as a section of it. During the eighties, as it came into focus, he sacrificed years of earnings to write it, selling off stock that should have been a nest egg and serializing rough portions of it in Rolling Stone, mainly for the money.

Published in 1987, The Bonfire of the Vanities bore all the Wolfe hallmarks: outsize characters, pages of detail, exclamation points, and, above all, a fixation on status. Its micro-worlds—Wall Street, the Bronx courts, City Hall—impressed insiders, and it came as close as fiction could to breaking news. A subway mugging scene was dropped from the manuscript after Bernhard Goetz’s vigilante shooting, and a black organizer seemed to predict Al Sharpton. The Crown Heights riots would hinge on a car accident, just like a riot in Bonfire. Every new headline was an ad for the book and a vindication of its reportorial approach.

It was also a runaway success, spending more than a year on the best-seller list. Three novels later, it looks like a decisive turn away from fact. Did he see it that way at the time? “To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t,” he says. “But, my God, that thing had done so well, no matter how you tote it up, I couldn’t resist. So I started working on A Man in Full.

He also wrote a long essay for Harper’s, published in 1989 under the title “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel.” Now the cure for the modern novel was not more journalism, but more journalistic fiction. And, come to think of it, he’d found a paragon of the style, a guiding light for those authors who dared to come out from under their faculty desks and into the streets, notebooks in hand. That paragon was cited, chapter and verse, in the essay’s very first sentence: “May I be forgiven if I take as my text the sixth page of the fourth chapter of The Bonfire of the Vanities?”

Photo: Tina Barney/New York Magazine

Tom Wolfe’s closest friends (few of them writers) say that what surprises you most is how courteous he is. The nicest thing he does for me is to show up ten minutes late to the interview, leaving me free to snoop around his home while he prepares himself in some other wing.

Visions of “Radical Chic” come almost unbidden from the moment the housekeeper guides me to an impossibly plush settee, which is upholstered in—what? Donald Trump’s idea of Provençal? Tom Wolfe’s apartment is only a block away from Leonard Bernstein’s old Panther pad, and it surely has a better view, clear across Central Park to the spires of the Dakota.

Chez Wolfe has twelve rooms to Lenny’s thirteen, and only one grand piano in his living room instead of two. But then, Lenny’s piano wasn’t custom-painted a lacquered dark blue. The décor reflects what Wolfe mocked in “Radical Chic” as “the million-dollar chatchka look,” but without the counterbalance of ancien riche restraint. Two brass-monkey-man figurines hold up candles atop a fireplace. The walls of a nearby half-bath are 100 percent mirror, so that a standing visitor gazes into an infinite regression of marble sinks, cream toilets, and monogrammed towels.

Wolfe’s office is where the haute clutter reaches critical condition: a crescent-shaped desk with built-in bookshelves; two white lampshades in the shape of fedoras; a quilt depicting hats in the multicolored Warhol style. There are enough other artifacts, hangings, and eighties-jazzy patterns to overwhelm not only Wolfe but his hero Balzac, whom a character in Back to Blood praises for starting chapters “with a three-page description of the interior decoration of a parlor with the aim of bringing out the social position of a family in a concrete way.”

His own social position is more of a muddle. Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, a panorama of race and real estate in Atlanta, came out in 1998 and sold 1.1 million copies in hardcover. The Times’ Michiko Kakutani called it “a big if qualified leap forward for Mr. Wolfe as a novelist.” But then came the backlash, largely from Establishment novelists. John Updike, in The New Yorker, called it “entertainment, not literature.” Norman Mailer, in The New York Review of Books, compared reading it to a tryst with a 300-pound woman: “Once she gets on top it’s all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.” And John Irving said on TV, “I can pick up any of his books and turn to any page and read a sentence that would make me gag.”

Wolfe responded with a 30-page essay, “My Three Stooges,” and put it into his 2000 collection Hooking Up. Mailer and Updike were “senior citizens” with “exhausted carcasses,” he wrote, and Irving possessed of “sexagenarian jowls”—though he was only 57, to Wolfe’s 68. If you didn’t know him any better, you’d swear the eternal outsider was … pleading for acceptance!

An unusually meditative chapter of Charlotte Simmons called “The H Word” begins, “Where is the poet who has sung of that most lacerating of all human emotions, the cut that never heals—male humiliation?” Two chapters in Back to Blood are titled “Humiliation One” and “Humiliation, Too.” Forty-six years ago, a journalist asked Wolfe what made him angriest. “Humiliation,” he told her. “I never forget. I never forgive. I can wait. I find it very easy to harbor a grudge. I have scores to settle.”

In 1996, Wolfe had a heart attack, followed by quintuple-bypass surgery. It was a huge shock for a gym rat. He went through a state he now calls “hypomania”—a lesser form of full-blown mania. (The name of the boat owned by a pornography-obsessed psychiatrist in Back to Blood is Hypomanic.) Wolfe had bouts of road rage and late-night writing jags. He felt joyously, angrily alive. Then he became depressed—but he claims a therapist and a few pills fixed that right quick. Perhaps the episode lent some humanity to Charlie Croker, the aging title character of A Man in Full, arguably his most fully developed fictional human.

And maybe it also explains the frustration and moralism that began creeping into his writing. In the title essay of Hooking Up, he dwelled on the ubiquity of jeans and sneakers as though it were a horrifying new phenomenon. Those signs of status, it seemed, were becoming harder for Wolfe to read. And when it came to his famous ventriloquism, something was now being lost in transliteration. Here was a snatch of imaginary dialogue from a fictional teenager: “The whole thing was like very sketchy, but I scored that diesel who said he was gonna go home and caff up [drink coffee in order to stay awake and study] for the psych test.” The brackets, remarkably, are Wolfe’s.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is jam-packed with this sort of thing, as witnessed by a bright virgin from backwoods North Carolina who is scandalized—and then ruined—by the depravities of fraternity culture at her Duke-like university. The novel was widely panned. Some critics found it a little creepy, what with all the grunting teen sex, along with the mental image of a cuff-linked 70-year-old taking notes on keg stands. Sales were so disappointing—at least relative to expectations—that they drove apart Wolfe and his longtime publisher. FSG refused to put up the $5 million he was reportedly asking for his next novel, so he went to Little, Brown. Where he got $7 million.

Wolfe has no regrets. “Benighted as I am,” he says now, “I was very happy with it. 350,000 in sales—I think a lot of writers would be happy to do that.” (He’s actually lowballing it.) As for the generation gap, “My entire career, in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me.” Nothing, he says, had changed.

And he bristles at the consensus that he’s a conservative. “I’ve voted for every winner since I’ve been old enough to vote,” he says—with the exception of Bill Clinton the first time, when Ross Perot played the spoiler. And this one-man bellwether is still undecided about the current contest. “I missed the first debate except for five minutes. When I walked in, they were talking about something so arcane—the economy, or was it schools? It did not hold my attention.” It doesn’t matter much, anyway. “Our federal government is like a train on the track,” he says. “There are people on the right and people on the left, they’re yelling at it. The train has no choice; it’s on its track! Everyone gets forced to the center, which is fine with me … I read all these things about the country fading, but if you really think about it, we’re still giants!”

Wolfe’s optimistic gigantism is bigger than ever in Back to Blood, and it’s precisely what most bothered one early critic of the novel. “The reader gets skillful at speed-reading these identical scrolls of bombast,” wrote James Wood in The New Yorker, “accelerating through their falsities and imprecisions, keen for the noisy lies to end so that the slightly quieter dubieties of the plot might surface.”

Wolfe claims ignorance of the review. “Where did that appear?” he asks. “Oh, I don’t get The New Yorker.” If he did read it (or admit to it), he might respond that Wood is just attacking him for being himself.

Long ago, Wolfe called his journalism “a kind of Method acting,” an inside-out approach. But in fiction, it’s just the opposite. Wolfe is all external technique, like those classical actors who need to wear the costume in order to get the emotion. His work isn’t angsty Ibsen; it’s opéra bouffe, a parody of human drama. “I do novels a bit backward,” he tells me. “I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”

Back to Blood is a return to form, a romping satire with tight plotting, loose descriptions, and dialogue in extremis. It’s more of a 30,000-foot flyover to Bonfire’s helicopter ride. But the city it treats is lighter, sexier, and more fragmented—less freighted with weighty conceptions of itself. Whether it represents a comeback from Charlotte Simmons depends mostly on whether his old readers are still open to the old Wolfe.

Wolfe himself seems ambivalent. In fact, he may prefer nonfiction after all. He thinks his best work was “Radical Chic.” His next project is about “the story of the theory of evolution,” including the competition between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace over who would get famous for it. Nonfiction is “the high point of twentieth-century writing,” he says, and just so you know he isn’t purely self-promoting, he names Michael Lewis as “probably the best current writer in this country.”

Maybe Kipling’s lesson in humility—or is it the wisdom of age?—has begun to wear away at his novelist ego, or helped remind him of his own lesson to his readers: that all is vanity. Speaking about literary fashions,  he invokes “a sociology of truth,” whereby different truths hold sway in different eras. After all, Dickens, the Wolfe of his day, was considered minor for a century after his death. “And then one day in 1970, people in England woke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, this guy may be a major writer!’ ”

Will America wake up in 21-something to a similar revelation about a slim, dapper, sharp-nosed eccentric with surprising upper-body strength?” “No,” he says. “I’m merely justifying my approach.” Look at the great Zola—barely read today. “So it’s really not in one’s hands.” Thinking about posterity, he says with a soft, self-deprecating laugh, is “not only futile, but fatal.”   

*This article originally appeared in the October 29, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Tom Wolfe on His New Novel Back to Blood