Things are a little different when Tom Wolfe comes to the Book Fair. For example, the stand-by line in the back alley, where they take the people who think they can just walk in without securing a ticket first, fills up. I know, because I ducked down that alley to have a private moment with my press pass. As soon as the Book Fair employees walked away, a shadowy man appeared and began to scalp tickets to the event. Think about that for a second--scalpers at a book fair. Who could have imagined?
When Tom Wolfe comes to the Book Fair, the folks with media passes lose their cushy seats and stand in long lines with everyone else. People fly in from across the country and bring big stacks of books for him to sign. Women wear giant necklaces, and the line hums with discussions about the latest Wolfe Novel, Back to Blood.
“I heard this book has the filthiest sex yet.”
“How is that possible? Did you read…”
When Tom Wolfe comes to the Book Fair, they announce he will sign as many copies of his new book as you buy, but only one of his other books—and he won’t personalize any of them.
This is not entirely true. When Tom Wolfe signs a book, it’s a work of art. The ‘F’ in Wolfe morphs into a vortex, a swirl, like the cyclone that carried Dorothy away from a bleak landscape, and into a Technicolor world. This is exactly what his books do. The book I asked Wolfe to sign was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the non-fiction account of the time he spent embedded as a journalist with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drove across America, spreading the gospel of LSD at church basement parties. For me, reading that account was like opening the front door to Auntie Em’s farmhouse and seeing Oz for the first time. I couldn’t close the door back up after catching a glimpse of the psychedelic landscape Wolfe rendered. I skipped right down his Yellow Brick Road, hand-in-hand with Tom Wolfe’s words.
The candy-colored land in Tom Wolfe’s latest book is Miami, and not just South Beach and Little Havana. Wolfe went deep into Miami, into the Santeria shops in Hialeah, into Little Haiti and into Overtown. In doing his research, Wolfe went out with the harbor patrol on an inflatable pontoon boat he describes as like riding a foamy pancake out into the ocean at 45 miles an hour.
Wolfe came here, because he wanted to look at immigration, and Miami, he says, is unique in that in one generation, the entire voting demographic shifted to reflect migration. It also helped that two of his friends, former Miami mayor, Manny Diaz, and the former Miami Chief of Police, John Timoney, both emigrated to the United States in 1961. Diaz led the conversation with Wolfe, and they covered a variety of topics, from the plight of working mothers to great country music song titles.
The idea for the title of this new book Back to Blood is a theory Wolfe has, that the more secular we become as a society, the more we seek to cling to something inalterable to replace the religiosity we are losing. We naturally find groups we can belong to, whether it is a social group, or an ethnic background. “People think a lot of what they wear,” Wolfe explained, “they need to stay in line.” Wolfe explained that his own choice of dress, he is known for wearing white suits, sets him apart from most people. At this point I laughed to myself. I had calculated my own outfit for the event precisely to impress. I was wearing a brown skirt, orange and brown top, but then, to increase the flair, I donned a purple cardigan. Not the usual color combination, I know. I also knew that I would be standing in line to get my book signed, and I wanted to catch Wolfe’s eye, if only for a second, while I told him how greatly The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had shaped my own writing.
Standing there, watching Tom Wolfe sign my book, it was pretty evident he wasn’t paying attention to my outfit at all. I was noting his though. It must have been a long day. The lapels of his white suit were beginning to wrinkle, and his left hand was in a brace. His shirt was sky blue, and he was wearing a white tie with black polka dots. His right hand was busy signing. It made me think of all the books those hands had written and signed over the course of his career. He was completely engrossed in the process of drawing that vortex in his signature. It was a little like watching one of the witches from MacBeth stirring the cauldron.
“Wow! “ I finally interjected, pointing at the signed page, “that’s really beautiful.”
“Yes,” he answered, “it is.” And then Tom Wolfe grinned at me.