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A small motorboat meandered through the 2011 Columbus Day Regatta, carrying just a driver, a cameraman, and a frail-looking 80-year-old man in an impeccable white suit. If, between swilling daiquiris and cannonballing into the sea, revelers on other boats noticed the strangely dressed octogenarian, they probably assumed he was just a standard-issue Miami weirdo, out to scope some drunken nip slips or round up a few women to share his table at a lesser-known nightclub later that evening.
But this wasn't just any weirdo. This was Tom Wolfe.
The influential journalist and author of books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities was in town to research his latest project, Back to Blood, a novel set in Miami and addressing some very Miami topics like immigration, hedonism, wealth, and class. Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral, who in 2003 had interviewed the writer for a profile of former Miami police Chief John Timoney, wrote to Wolfe in 2008 to offer to be his "fixer," a research concierge who could help connect the writer with his subject matter. To Corral's shock, Wolfe called him directly and accepted him as his tour guide.
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"It took me a moment to understand that this was not somebody yanking my chain," Corral remembers.
So began a series of expeditions to the neighborhoods and populations that make Miami the quirky, complicated mix of cultures that for decades has frustrated outside writers. With Corral's help, Wolfe went house hunting in Hialeah, sampled Cuban coffee from La Minutera, and sketched out floor plans for a fictional home in his book. He inspected the interiors of the one percent's luxury yachts. He explored Santería at a strip-mall botanica. And, yes, he observed sloshed, bikini-clad youngsters in their offshore habitat.
"To be honest with you, I had never been to the Columbus Day Regatta. But Tom Wolfe came into town with the idea of going to the regatta. So naturally I'd be up for it," Corral says, laughing. "We towed a 17-foot fishing boat behind [a] yacht so that when we got to the regatta, we could hop into the boat and start weaving through this maze of partiers."
Early in the process, Corral became aware that he was witnessing literary history in the making.
"After a couple visits, I realized that I was watching how he developed the ideas for his book... This is a guy who has cut his teeth on research his whole career, and here you have a front-row seat [to his process]."
He asked Wolfe if he could film him as he worked. Wolfe said yes, on the condition that he could tell Corral to stop filming anytime it might interfere with his research.
The result is Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, Corral's hourlong documentary that attempts to bring viewers into the experience. The film sews Corral's footage together with interviews with Miami experts and Tom Wolfe biographers, and music by jazz artist Federico Britos. (A song by Miami band Afrobeta can also be heard during the Columbus Day scene, fittingly titled, "Do You Party?")
Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood relies on its subject alone to keep viewers engaged — there are no particularly artsy or dazzling feats of cinematography and no surprising revelations about either Miami or Wolfe.
Corral gives Wolfe an authentic Miami experience, which is a testament to Corral's tour-guide skills but not exactly a riveting subject for locals who've grown used to the city's quirks. And Wolfe behaves as expected: self-assured and low-key, with a dry wit, somehow blending into the background even while wearing his trademark white suit. As a result, the film feels more like a supplement to an unreleased novel rather than a stand-alone feature.
Still, Wolfe is a literary legend who's not often seen in the spotlight — and his wry one-liners steal several scenes throughout the movie. "The regatta," Wolfe quips with a hint of a devilish smile on his face, "is an example of the sexualization of almost everything."
"To this day, I can't be 100 percent certain when he's joking and when he's being serious," Corral laughs. "It's very dry and subtle. But he's a joker. He's a big joker."
That bone-dry humor could get him into trouble with proud Miamians, especially when it comes to perpetuating certain Miami stereotypes — the sex, the parties, the ridiculously flashy wealth. When Wolfe listens to a list of superfluous amenities in a luxury yacht bathroom or watches day-drinking party girls go wild, the look on his face says he just can't wait to get to his desk to lampoon it all on the page.
But Corral, who's read Back to Blood, says that even though one of the largest chapters in the book is devoted to Wolfe's regatta experience, Miami looks authentic and respectable in Wolfe's interpretation.
"Miami is a city that is used to being the butt of jokes: the 2000 election, Elián González, all these issues that have come up over the years," he says. "This book does not make Miami the butt of the joke. I think [Wolfe] got below the surface of this city."
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