Things You Never Thought Possible’

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Mark Seliger
Tom Wolfe, New York City, November 2011

The writers of Tom Wolfe’s generation who discovered Miami before him—writers whose careers began in the era of the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs—described Miami as the nerve center of America’s secret history. In the late 1980s, Joan Didion observed that unofficial meetings at private homes in Coconut Grove and Miami Beach had profound international consequences. Miami, she wrote, was

not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid. Of American cities Miami has since 1959 connected only to Washington, which is the peculiarity of both places, and increasingly the warp.1

The city had a mythic quality—again, “not a city at all,” but “a tale, a romance of the tropics, a kind of waking dream in which any possibility could and would be accommodated.”

Norman Mailer, writing about the 1968 Republican convention in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, called the city “a steam-pot of miasmas,” its kitschy exterior masking a sordid, haunted underbelly. Traveling through Miami was like making “love to a 300-pound woman who has decided to get on top…. You could not dominate a thing. That uprooted jungle had to be screaming beneath.”2

The image of Miami as a murky nexus of international intrigue persisted in novels by writers of the next generation, who depicted Miami as the Gehenna of postwar America, teeming with rueful mafiosi, militant Cuban exiles, right-wing extremists, Latin American narco-titans, and eccentric billionaires—a world most vividly evoked in John Sayles’s Los Gusanos; James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy; and Don DeLillo’s Libra, in which conspirators originally plan to assassinate President Kennedy there, largely for symbolic reasons: “Miami has an impact, a resonance. City of exiles, unhealed wounds.”

Who better than Tom Wolfe, the great anatomist of American society, to investigate America’s miasmic steam-pot? He already knew some of the players and the milieu intimately, having been sent to Cuba by The Washington Post, in 1961, to cover the early days of the Castro regime. And what better time than now for a sweeping novel about Miami that lays bare the power structure of a city that still exerts a strong influence on the politics and economies of two continents, particularly in light of the current national debate over immigration, the ascendancy of the Latin-American drug trade, and the spectacular rise of Marco Rubio, the Miami-born, Cuban-American US Senator?

But Back to Blood, it turns out, is not that novel. Wolfe’s Miami seems smaller, less consequential, connected not to Washington or Bogotá or Caracas but to Las Vegas and the San Fernando Valley. Most of the time, in other words, Wolfe’s …

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  1. 1

    See “ Miami,” The New York Review, May 28, 1987, the first in a four-part series later published in book form as Miami

  2. 2

    Writing thirty years later in The New York Review, Mailer also likened the experience of reading Tom Wolfe’s novels to making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. “Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated. So you read and you grab and you even find delight in some of these mounds of material. Yet all the while you resist—how you resist!—letting three hundred pounds take you over.”