Excerpt of Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood in Vanity Fair

October 5th, 2012

Vanity Fair
November 2012
By Tom Wolfe

 

It was December, which in Miami Beach had only the most boring meteorological significance. Imagine a picture book with the same photograph on every page … every page … high noon beneath a flawless cloudless bright-blue sky … on every page … a tropical sun that turns those rare old birds, pedestrians, into stumpy abstract black shadows on the sidewalk … on every page … unending views of the Atlantic Ocean, “unending” meaning that every couple of blocks, if you squint at a certain angle between the gleaming pinkish butter-colored condominium towers that wall off the shining sea from clueless gawkers who come to Miami Beach thinking they can just drive down to the shore and see the beaches and the indolent recliner & umbrella people and the lapping waves and the ocean sparkling and glistening and stretching out to the horizon in a perfect 180-degree arc … if you squint just right, every couple of blocks you can get a skinny, thin-as-a-ballpoint-refill, vertical glimpse of the ocean—blip—and it’s gone … on every page … glimpse—blip—and it’s gone … on every page … on every page …

However, at high noon, or 11:45 A.M., to be exact, on this particular December day Magdalena and Norman were indoors … in the distinguished company of Maurice Fleischmann, along with Marilynn Carr, his “A.A.,” as he called her … short for art adviser. In fact, he had begun using that as her nickname … “Hey, A.A., come take a look at this” … or whatever. With dignity, insofar as that was possible, the four of them sought to keep their place in a line, more or less, less a line, in fact, and more like a scrimmage at an Iranian airline counter. Two hundred or so restless souls, most of them middle-aged men, 11 of whom had been pointed out to Magdalena as billionaires—billionaires—12, if you counted Maurice himself, were squirming like maggots over the prospect of what lay on the other side of an inch-thick glass wall just inside a small portal, Entrance D of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The Convention Center took up an entire city block on Miami Beach. An ordinary person could walk past Entrance D every day for years and never be conscious of its existence. That was the whole point. Ordinary people didn’t know and mustn’t know that billionaires and countless nine-digit millionaires were in there squirming like maggots … 15 minutes before Miami Art Basel’s moment of money and male combat. They all had an urge.

The maggots! … Once, when she was six or seven, Magdalena had come upon a little dead dog, a mutt, on a sidewalk in Hialeah. A regular hive of bugs was burrowing into a big gash in the dog’s haunch—only these weren’t exactly bugs. They looked more like worms, little, short, soft, deathly-pale worms; and they were not in anything so orderly as a hive. They were a wriggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots rooting over and under one another in a heedless, literally headless, frenzy to get at the dead meat. She learned later that they were decephalized larvae. They had no heads. The frenzy was all they had. They didn’t have five senses; they had one, the urge, and the urge was all they felt. They were utterly blind.

Just take a look at them! … the billionaires! They look like shoppers mobbed outside Macy’s at midnight for the 40-percent-off After Christmas Sale. No, they don’t look that good. They look older and grubbier and more washed out … They’re wearing baggy-in-the-seat Relaxed Fit jeans, too-big T-shirts, too-big polo shirts hanging out at the bottom to make room for their paunches, dirty khakis, ug-lee rumpled woolen ankle-high socks of rubber-mat black, paint-job green, and slop-mop maroon … and sneakers. Magdalena had never seen this many old men—practically all were middle-aged or older—wearing sneakers. Just look—there and there and over there—not just sneakers but real basketball shoes. And for what? They probably think all these teen togs make them look younger. Are they kidding? They just make their slumping backs and sloping shoulders and fat-sloppy bellies … and scoliotic spines and slanted-forward necks and low-slung jowls and stringy wattles … more obvious.

To tell the truth, Magdalena didn’t particularly care about all that. She thought it was funny. Mainly, she was envious of A.A. This americana was pretty and young and, it almost went without saying, blonde. Her clothes were sophisticated, yet very simple … and very sexy … a perfectly plain, sensible, businesslike sleeveless black dress … but short … ended a foot and a half above her knees and showed plenty of her fine fair thighs … made it seem like you were looking at all of her fine fair body. Oh, Magdalena didn’t doubt for a second that she was sexier than this girl, had better breasts, better lips, better hair … long, full, lustrous dark hair as opposed to this americana’s sexless little blond bob, copied from that English girl, Posh Spice … She just wished she had worn a minidress, too, to show off her bare legs … as opposed to these slim white pants that mainly showed off the deep cleft of her perfect little bottom. But this “A.A.” girl had something else too. She was in the know. Advising rich people, like Fleischmann, about what very expensive art to buy was her business, and she knew all about this “fair,” officially called Art Basel Miami Beach, but to those in the know, as A.A. would quickly let you know, it was known as Miami Basel. She could fire off 60 in the know cracks a minute.

At this very moment, A.A. was saying, “So I ask her—I ask her what she’s interested in, and she says to me, ‘I’m looking for something cutting-edge … like a Cy Twombly.’ I’m thinking, ‘A Cy Twombly?’ Cy Twombly was cutting-edge in the nineteen-fifties! He died a couple of years ago. Most of his contemporaries are dead by now! You’re not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying. You may be great. You may be iconic, the way Cy Twombly is, but you’re not cutting-edge.

She didn’t address any of this to Magdalena. She never looked at her. Why waste attention, much less words, on some little nobody who probably doesn’t know anything anyway? The worst part of it was that she was right. Magdalena had never heard of Cy Twombly. She didn’t know what “cutting-edge” meant, either, although she could sort of guess from the way A.A. used it. And what did iconic mean? She hadn’t the faintest idea. She bet Norman didn’t know, either, didn’t understand the first thing Miss All-Business sexy A.A. had just said, but Norman created the sort of presence that made people think he knew everything about anything anybody had to say.

Iconic was a word that was beginning to pop up all around them, now that there were just minutes to go before the magic hour, noon. The maggots were rooting amongst one another more anxiously.

Somewhere very nearby a man with a high voice was saying, “O.K., maybe it isn’t iconic Giacometti, but it’s great Giacometti all the same, but no-o-o-o—” Magdalena recognized that voice. A hedge-fund billionaire from Greenwich?—Stamford?—someplace in Connecticut, anyway. She remembered him from the BesJet dinner two nights ago.

And some woman was saying, “Koons’d die at auction right now!”

“—Hirst, if you ask me. He’s high as a dead fish after 15 minutes in the sun.”

“—what you just said? Prince is the one who’s tanked.”

“—the fish that’s up there at Stevie’s, rotting its $40 million guts out?”

“—iconic, my ass.”

“—svear, ‘de-skilt’ vas vot she said!” (“—swear, ‘de-skilled’ was what she said!”) Magdalena knew that voice very well, from last night at the dinner party Michael du Glasse and his wife, Caroline Peyton-Soames, gave at Chez Toi. She even remembered his name, Heinrich von Hasse. He had made billions manufacturing … something about industrial robots? … Was that what they said? Whatever else he did, he had spent so many millions buying art at Art Basel in Switzerland six months ago, people were talking about him at practically every party she and Norman and Maurice had been to.

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