The Washington Post
By Associated Press
Published: October 24, 2012
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 says 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?’”
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 says, 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 doesn’t like to admit it, but reviews get to him. He remembers John Updike panning “A Man in Full” as “entertainment, not literature,” and John Irving calling the same book “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction.” Wolfe’s response: He does aim to please (and provoke), and he does think like a newspaperman. His prescription for the American novel remains what he has suggested for decades: Don’t just sit there. Get out and report your story, capture the public and the private, the way Emile Zola did back in the 19th century.