MIAMI—The story so far: Tom Wolfe is in Miami.
The Tom Wolfe, the man in the white suit, the iconic journalist and novelist who brought us The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Me Decade, Radical Chic, The Right Stuff, a whole cavalcade of surfers, deluded `60s liberals, acid-dropping hippies, daredevil pilots, greedy developers, art-world hucksters and sex-crazed college students.
He is up to something.
He is here, ostensibly, for an invitation-only “conversation” with his new friend, Mayor Manny Diaz, which took place Thursday evening at the Freedom Tower. The pairing seems odd, the subject more so: “Art and Real Estate: The Secret Formula for Urban Renewal and Renown Beyond Your Mega-Wildest Dreams.”
The invitation promised an announcement about his new book. The announcement was forgotten.
It is Wolfe’s second low-key visit to Miami this year, the first having come at the invitation of his old pal from New York City, Miami Police Chief John Timoney.
Wolfe is said to be sniffing around.
He has for some time been researching a book on immigration, a subject that has gradually taken hold of his imagination. He is said to be interested in, no, taken by, Miami.
So could that mean . . . a Miami book?
Wolfe isn’t saying. Is he being coy? He says he doesn’t know. But others he has spoken to say he is.
The book is in a gestational phase. A book takes him several years. During an afternoon visit to City Hall with the mayor, Wolfe said he hasn’t yet decided whether the book will be fiction or non. He has not yet even worked up a hypothesis about immigration, and Wolfe, a pitiless social critic in genteel garb, always lays out a thesis, with great ripping gusto, and lets the bodies fall where they may.
But he does know the topic is suddenly hot.
“I would tell people I was working on a book about immigration, and they would say, `That’s fascinating,’ and then their heads would go, pffft,” Wolfe said, mimicking someone abruptly dropping off to sleep mid-sentence. “Now, suddenly, it’s a big thing.”
Wolfe’s interest in the city was piqued after his March visit with Timoney. He met Diaz, a Cuban American, of course, who regaled Wolfe with tales of the city and his own experience as an exile and immigrant.
After the visit, Wolfe sent Diaz a hand-written, hand-illustrated letter, now framed and on the wall of the mayor’s office:
“I really was convinced that the MIAMI STORY, if I may call it that, would make a great book,” Wolfe wrote in big looping letters. “At night, I noticed, Miami gives off a blaze of light greater than any other city. It’s true.”
The word “true” is aglow, awash in yellow.
So Diaz invited him back to give a talk, look around and talk some more.
“I hadn’t realized before what a focal point Miami is, not just for immigration from Latin America, but from all over,” Wolfe said, before asking the mayor whether there are any large communities of Vietnamese, Thais or other Southeast Asians in Miami.
Not large, the mayor answered.
Wolfe, a septuagenarian, hopes to return in December for the Art Basel Miami Beach fair.
He’s not going for the art so much. He’s going for the sideshow, he told the high-powered Freedom Tower assembly Thursday night. Such as the fabulously wealthy hedge-fund managers in jeans and $5,000 Tiffany belt buckles who flock to Art Basel and collect “no-hands” art—that is, Wolfe said, art never touched by the artist, like English artist Damien Hirst’s shark suspended in formaldehyde.
The secret formula of the lecture’s title, it turns out, was no real secret.
Even as he poked fun, a great deal of fun, at contemporary art, Wolfe recounted how in city after city—New York to the former East Berlin to Dublin and Providence, R.I.—artists have colonized decrepit neighborhoods for the rich who promptly followed, giving birth to urban renewal.
Half in jest, he urged Miami to “pick out a crime-ridden, rundown area,” make it tax-free for artists and send in an army of them. Lure them in with iPhones and microwave ovens, he said.
“This might just be a wise thing to do,” he said to a burst of applause.
But the art, he noted—pointing to stunning Goya etchings on the walls around the hall—must be cutting-edge, because that’s what draws the rich and trendy.
“What chance would Goya have if he wanted to enter the art world today?” Wolfe asked. “Forget about it!”
That afternoon, after Wolfe had left his office, Diaz said he was aware the great writer’s favor might prove double-edged.
After A Man in Full—his fictional tale of a greedy developer undone amid treacherous racial politics—was published in 1998, the red-carpet treatment Wolfe had enjoyed in Atlanta was abruptly withdrawn by the miffed natives.
“I hope this book doesn’t come out until 2010,” when Diaz will be safely out of office, Diaz joked.
But Wolfe knows the broad arc of the Miami story. In an essay in his 2000 book Hooking Up, he noted how America had welcomed immigrants from all over the world in the preceding century—and then “made sure they enjoyed full civil rights, including the means to take political power in a city the size of Miami if they could muster the votes.”
Nor are Cubans some kind of novelty fare for Wolfe.
Before he was Kandy Kolored, Wolfe was the Latin American correspondent for The Washington Post and in Havana in the early days of Castro’s takeover. He arrived at the airport to cover los barbudos in a pale linen suit and a Panama hat. He won an award for his coverage.