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City WolfeAuthor talks up new novel, ‘Back to Blood’

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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?’ ”

Millions know the meaning of “Tom Wolfe”: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff,” the “Me” decade and “radical chic,” the punched-up prose and the blaze of white. At age 81, his hair is thinned and his posture stooped, but the face remains impish and his manner wide-eyed and boyish at all the amazing things that happen – the kinds of stories, he likes to say, that you can’t make up.

His latest scoops appear in “Back to Blood,” his first novel in eight years. It’s another big city tale in the tradition of “Bonfire,” his gleeful panorama of 1980s New York. “Back to Blood” features Wolfe’s usual cocktail of sex, class and color, from a Cuban-American police officer to a WASP newspaper editor to a Russian oligarch.

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.

“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 said.

Wolfe sees his job as more than just filling notepads; he has figured out how it adds up. After hanging around with hippies and astronauts, bankers and cops, he has concluded the same questions nag them all: What will my peers think? How am I doing? It’s all about status, something “on everybody’s mind all the time.”

And the ideas keep coming. Wolfe says he has at least six projects to keep him busy, including a nonfiction book on Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists and a fictional return to New York.

“There are still so many things I don’t know about the city and I’d just like to see what’s out there,” he said. “The Latin American population has increased enormously since ‘Bonfire’ and Wall Street has changed enormously. I’ll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what I find.”

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.

He continues to look down on contemporary fiction, although he doesn’t follow it as closely as he did back in the 1980s when he condemned the “anesthetic solitude” of minimalists and other authors of the time. He has little to say about such 21st-century novelists as Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides. Wolfe does have a few nice words for Jonathan Franzen, whose “Freedom” is a broad take on American life during the George W. Bush administration.

“Franzen does get into the social scene to some extent,” Wolfe says. “I give him credit for that.”

Wolfe sees his job as more than just filling notepads; he has figured out how it adds up. After hanging around with hippies and astronauts, bankers and cops, he has concluded the same questions nag them all: What will my peers think? How am I doing? It’s all about status, something “on everybody’s mind all the time.”

A believer that one should never exclude himself from his own theory, Wolfe is an old-fashioned striver, a Richmond, Va., native who was class president in high school and ran the student newspaper. He wanted to be a Great American Writer, in the Greatest American City: New York.

He hustled and wrote and dressed his way to the top. His apartment is a shining wonder, 12 rooms on the 14th floor of a doorman building on the Upper East Side. Depending on which way you turn your head, you could catch a view of Central Park or a lampshade in his office designed after the author’s signature Panama hat. Wolfe was interviewed in what might be called a sitting room, or a TV-less living room, or a yellow room — yellow walls, yellow radiators, yellow window shutters, yellow book cases, and Wolfe’s couch of choice, with its yellow corduroy design.

He’s been a novelist for 30 years, but he is also defined as a founder of the “New Journalism,” the now standard art of applying the techniques of fiction — dialogue, scene setting, rich, descriptive language — to nonfiction. His peers have included Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and the late Nora Ephron. His current favorites include Mark Bowden, best known for “Black Hawk Down,” and “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis.

“He is one of my heroes,” says Lewis, who has been reading Wolfe since he was a boy. “He led the way in showing how much could be crammed into a work of nonfiction.”

Wolfe is the least sedentary of writers and seeing him walk gamely around his apartment makes you wonder if he wasn’t ready for one of those quiet, introspective novels he so despises. But the ideas keep coming. Wolfe says he has at least six projects to keep him busy, including a nonfiction book on Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists and a fictional return to New York.

“There are still so many things I don’t know about the city and I’d just like to see what’s out there,” he says. “The Latin American population has increased enormously since ‘Bonfire’ and Wall Street has changed enormously. I’ll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what I find.”

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