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 Miami looks like this:
BEAT thung BEAT thung BEAT thung THRUST hump THRUST hump THRUST hump hump humping BEHIND her HUMP thung THRUST the turgid crotch of his trunks in her buttocks RUT rut rut rut…
This particular passage appears one third of the way into the novel, in a scene set at the Columbus Day Regatta. Although there is a regatta in Biscayne Bay on that day, the main attraction is the orgiastic bacchanalia that occurs across the bay at Elliott Key. The idea is something like Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, only on boats—thousands of boats, yachts, cigarette boats, dinghies, kayaks, clustered around the key like sharks around a bleeding seal.
Magdalena Otero, a beautiful young Cuban-American nurse, has been taken to Elliott Key by her boss and lover, Dr. Norman Lewis, a psychologist who counsels patients addicted to pornography. Dr. Lewis explains that they are there to observe these “rutrutrutting” hordes for the purpose of research. But it slowly dawns on Magdalena that Dr. Norman’s interest in this open-water orgy is not as clinical as he claims. She notices that he’s drooling, for instance. Norman is not a sympathetic character—hardly any of Wolfe’s fictional characters are—but when pushed by Magdalena, he delivers a defense of his voyeurism that also articulates the novel’s great theme. “If you keep your eyes open,” says Dr. Lewis,
you will witness things you never thought possible. You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed. You will see Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons. And that’s where Man is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!
Mankind with all the rules removed—this is Wolfe’s Miami. In chapters that take place in a strip club, at a party being filmed for a reality television show, and at Art Basel Miami, where the most desirable, expensive artworks are slabs of glass engraved with pornographic images, Wolfe’s characters regress to a subhuman state. They shove and push in line for the art show, they brawl in front of television cameras, they fornicate in public like bonobos. But why such self-debasement? What drives them? Any reader familiar with Wolfe’s work will know the answer. These Miamians are motivated by the same thing that drives the denizens of every Tom Wolfe novel: status anxiety.
Critics, when grappling with the scope and ambition of Wolfe’s novels, inevitably return to his 1989 manifesto, published in Harper’s, in which he urged novelists to leave their bedrooms and venture into the streets of their cities to “wrestle the beast”—to document real life, with the perspicacity of an investigative journalist. In his advocacy for a “new social novel,” Wolfe identified his literary models (Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Sinclair Lewis); described his technique (“to do the same sort of reporting I had done for The Right Stuff or Radical Chic & Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers”); and expressed his conviction that novelists had “to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” For the last quarter of a century, in four novels, he has resolutely followed this blueprint, to such an extent that the books, besides being immediately recognizable as the work of the same author, seem as if they could have been written at the same time.
Even more revealing than the Harper’s manifesto, however, is Wolfe’s 2006 Jefferson Lecture. He begins by recalling his discovery, as an American Studies Ph.D. student at Yale, of an essay by the German sociologist Max Weber called “Class, Status, and Party,” which introduced the concept of social status. Weber, departing from Marxist theory, argued that social stratification is not determined exclusively by economic class, but by status groups. Society is arranged around communities that define themselves by a set of values, which are indicated through styles of dress, speech, mannerisms, and other external signs. Economic class, Weber argued, is only one aspect of status, and not necessarily the most determinative. For Wolfe, Weber’s theories were transformative:
Even before I left graduate school I had come to the conclusion that virtually all people live by what I think of as a “fiction-absolute.” Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world—so ordained by some almighty force—would make not that individual but his group…the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles.
Using more than a dozen examples—from history, personal experience, politics, his own reporting—Wolfe argued that anxiety about social status is the animating force of modern society. It is a case he’s made for much of his career, both implicitly in his essays, and in his writing about his writing. Elsewhere he has put his thesis more succinctly: “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.” It is not a simplification to say that Wolfe’s fiction is structured entirely upon this sociological approach. In this way he seeks to emulate Balzac, about whose novels he once wrote, “there is scarcely a detail…that does not illuminate some point of status.”
The same can be said of Back to Blood, which follows the turbulent status reversals of a twenty-five-year-old Cuban-American police officer named Nestor Camacho. When the novel begins, Nestor has just been promoted to the elite Marine Patrol Unit, where he finds himself outranked by a pair of blond-haired, blue-eyed americanos. Immediately we have two overlapping hierarchies: professional and racial. When one of Nestor’s superiors asks him a fairly innocuous question about the design of Cuban boats, he steams with resentment:
The crack assumed a second-generation Cuban like him, born in the United States, would be so absorbed with Cuba that he might in some stupid way actually care about masts or no masts on Cuban boats. It showed what they actually thought about Cubans…. They still think we’re aliens. After all this time they still don’t get it, do they. If there’s any aliens in Miami now, it’s them. You blond retards….
Over the next thirty pages Wolfe carefully annotates the codes that Nestor and his superiors use to distinguish themselves from each other. Nestor is a gym rat; the blond men are flabby and easily winded. In conversation, Nestor refers to white Americans as “Anglos”; behind their backs it’s americanos or gringos. The Americans, when they think they’re among themselves, refer derogatively to Cubans as “Canadians.” The Anglos tuck their polo shirts into their shorts, while Nestor orders his uniform one size too small to accentuate his musculature, and brings in the seat of his trousers “until from behind you looked like a man wearing a pair of Speedos with long pants legs.”
Nestor soon has a chance to advance his standing with the americanos. A Cuban refugee, having been dumped by smugglers into Biscayne Bay, has climbed aboard a pleasure yacht and ascended to the top of its mast. The refugee refuses to come down, because he knows that if he’s apprehended while at sea, he will be returned to Cuba. A crowd of Cuban-Americans has assembled on a nearby bridge to show their support for him; they wave placards and demand that he be granted asylum. The only way to get the refugee down is by force. But who can climb a seventy-foot mast? Fortunately Nestor, like so many of the working-class characters in Wolfe’s novels, is gloriously, even preternaturally muscular (“big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads—dense!”), and ideally suited for the task, being a member of the only gym in all of Miami-Dade County that has a climbing rope. He pulls himself up the lanyard, hand-over-hand, and when he reaches the top he wraps his legs around the refugee. After a violent struggle, the two of them tumble into the water, but Nestor reemerges with the refugee still between his legs, and drags him onto the police boat.
This act of valor thrusts Nestor into a full-fledged identity crisis. He has earned the respect and admiration of his fellow officers. But to Miami’s Cuban community, he’s a traitor, responsible for deporting a poor refugee. Even his own father turns on him:
If some cop had done to me and your grandfather…what you just done to one of your own people, your own blood, you wouldn’t be here now! You wouldn’t be a big cop in Miami! You wouldn’t be nothing! You wouldn’t exist! Not even exist!
Nestor has a knack for stumbling into race scandals. During a drug bust in Overtown, one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, he is attacked by a giant “crack house thug.” Nestor, using his superior strength, subdues the giant, but in the process succumbs to an animalistic rage. A bystander films the encounter on his cell phone, and the clip goes viral, inflaming the old tensions between Miami’s Cuban and black populations. As Miami’s mayor says, “The kid’s a one-man race riot.” (This marks the third novel in which Wolfe has used the specter of a race riot to define the dramatic stakes; like New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Atlanta in A Man in Full, Miami in Back to Blood is always one headline away from civil war.) Nestor’s actions, while winning him the respect of his fellow Cuban cops, are disastrous for the police force’s reputation. He is stripped of his badge and, with it, his sense of identity. The force, after all, is the only family he has left.
Nestor only earns his redemption when he teams up with a Miami Herald journalist to uncover an extremely peculiar case of fraud. Sergei Korolyov, a Russian billionaire, has endowed a new art museum with $70 million worth of paintings: Kandinskys, Maleviches, Chagalls. But the canvases are forgeries—for Wolfe an irresistible metaphor for the tackiness of a society obsessed with appearances. Why, wonders the reader, would Korolyov risk everything to forge famous artworks, only to give them away for nothing, as a charitable donation? Because his endowment earns him benefits that money can’t buy: the museum is named after him, he receives invitations to every society dinner and Art Basel after-party, and women, such as Magdalena, find him “debonair, suave, sophisticated.” Although Wolfe suggests near the end of the novel that there may be financial incentives (mainly in the form of tax breaks), Korolyov’s primary motivation is status.
Magdalena, the novel’s other main character, has a less nuanced trajectory. Using sex as her means to social advancement, she ditches the poor Cubano Nestor in the novel’s early pages for Dr. Norman, the porno doctor—a mildly famous, intellectual, rich americano. Through Norman she meets the billionaire Korolyov, and sees an opportunity to improve her standing further. She wears a revealing outfit to dinner with Korolyov, and ends up in the bedroom of his two-story penthouse, where she experiences status overload: “two whole floors of a condominium tower overlooking the ocean…a curving staircase with a dark wooden banister inlaid with could-that-be-real ivory…walls of is-that-velvet.” But when Nestor exposes Korolyov’s fraud, and wins the heart of the entire city, Magdalena sees her old boyfriend in a new light: “He’s been in the papers and everything, and even though some of it seemed pretty bad, it’s like he’s almost famous or something.” Women have never been Wolfe’s strong point.
Nor is youth—or “Youth,” as Wolfe tends to write it—though the older he gets, the more it obsesses and vexes him. To his credit, Wolfe may know more than any other octogenarian about the sex lives and social habits of twenty-somethings, and he is relatively au courant when it comes to command of jargon. (“Swag,” the ubiquitous word of the moment, makes an appearance, albeit in an awkward construction: “Nestor was already sitting comfortably at a table for two by a window amid the place’s swag and bling—having a cup of coffee.”)
But Wolfe is not a native speaker, a fact made conspicuous on nearly every page of his 2004 novel about college life, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and intermittently in Back to Blood. He writes “downloads” when he means “uploads,” he thinks that you Google URLs instead of search terms, and he believes that 60 Minutes has a devoted following among college-age kids. Nobody under the age of thirty has ever said, or ever will say, the following sentences: “This is cooool! I just saw you on 60 Minutes—and here you are…on my boat! It’s soooooo cooooool!”
Wolfe is considerably more assured when it comes to the nuances of status distinction. Historians and anthropologists of the future will value his forensic dissection of Miami. We learn, for instance, that Cuban families from Havana are near the top of the social pyramid—though well below Northern European blonds—while immigrants from Cuban towns like Camagüey are guajiras, or hicks. Cubans rank above dark-skinned Haitians who act like American blacks, referred to as Negs, but below pale-skinned, Franco-mulat Haitians, especially those with colonial ancestors who speak with a vestigial, if somewhat affected, French accent. Nicaraguans, or Nics, have taken over Little Havana (“the real Little Havana” having moved to Hialeah), and are lowest of all.
Mexicans, while only slightly higher on the totem pole than Nicaraguans, at least can find employment at strip clubs, where, after a pole dancer finishes her set, they shuffle across the stage with brooms and dustpans, sweeping up crumpled dollar bills. Within the medical world, surgeons are at the top of the ladder (“men of action who routinely held human life in their hands”), with neurosurgeons occupying the very highest rung, while dermatologists, pathologists, radiologists, and psychiatrists languish at the bottom. Wealthy Anglos drive white Audi A5 convertibles (always with the top down), wear oxfords and khakis, and own condos in Aventura, though the richest of them all, the fat billionaires, wear T-shirts and tan basketball sneakers, and drive Ferraris and Porsches to their exclusive Fisher Island mansions.
The ramp to the Fisher Island ferry has three lanes: one for property owners; another for hotel guests and temporary residents (“the haute bourgeoisie”); and a third for servants, masseuses, and personal trainers (“lower middle class”). Working-class visitors—construction workers and gardeners—aren’t even allowed on the ferry. They have to take an open barge, which dumps them on the far side of the island.
Wolfe is a scrupulous, patient explainer, but characters, unlike ferryboats, do not become more vivid the more they are explained. The more we learn about Nestor and Magdalena and the others, the less believable they seem. They are the product of Wolfe’s prodigious research, but also restrained by it—they are never more than the sum of research. Take Nestor, for instance. We learn that he is obsessed with working out; he is resentful of Anglos who look down on him because he’s Cuban; he comes from a close-knit Cuban family, with a gruff, stubborn patriarch and a doting mother; they live in Hialeah, the center of Miami’s Cuban community; he adores pastelitos, a traditional Cuban meat pie, while the “hedonistic sweetness of Cuban coffee” fills him with a sense of euphoric bliss. Muscle-bound macho Nestor drives a muscle car, a red Camaro, wears the same dark sunglasses that “every cool Cuban cop in Miami wore…$29.95 at CVS,” and for good measure we repeatedly hear about the Santería medallion, the too-tight shirts, the biceps…
None of this information seems inaccurate—far from it. Every detail seems consistent with the way a reader, with little knowledge of Miami, might imagine a Cuban-American cop. But none of the details deviate much from expectations, with the result that Nestor—and for that matter, all of the novel’s characters—never seems to be more than a type, which is another way of saying a caricature. The accumulation of familiar descriptions does not deepen our understanding, but simply confirms the type, the way the spinning tires of a stalled car on a muddy road only deepen the rut in which it’s trapped.
The problem is exacerbated when Wolfe enters his characters’ minds. They tend to think, and feel, what we expect them to think and feel. (And always express themselves in a variant of the same voice: Wolfe’s giddy, effusive whoop.) We are not surprised when Nestor, honorable to a fault, decides to continue an investigation even after his badge has been confiscated, just as we are not surprised when Magdalena abandons her moderately successful sex doctor for the Russian billionaire. We are not surprised, almost ever. Realistic characters—what E.M. Forster called “round” characters—are, like human beings, full of contradictions. These characters have none.
This is especially frustrating because Wolfe has produced memorable, vivid characters in the past. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, the bond trader Sherman McCoy is by turns callous and consumed by guilt, devoted to his family and a shameless adulterer. Charles Croker, the disgraced magnate at the center of A Man in Full, is a compassionate bigot, a sensitive blowhard, and an opportunist who, nevertheless, by the end of the novel, has parted with all his worldly belongings and become a Stoic monk. But in Back to Blood Wolfe can never bring himself to compromise his valiant hero.
Even at Nestor’s lowest point, when he is caught on film taunting the black drug dealer, he doesn’t even utter a racial slur; his virtue is never compromised. So when Nestor triumphs in the novel’s conclusion, having uncovered not only the “biggest scam in art history” but also solving a separate case involving the beating of a public schoolteacher, the reader has little reason to celebrate. In fact we feel much like Nestor himself: “Nestor didn’t feel vindicated or redeemed or triumphant or anything like that. He felt lightheaded, disoriented, as if a staggering load he had been carrying for a very long time had been removed from his back by magic.”
As if to hedge against his characters’ inertia, Wolfe accelerates the prose, using every type of typographical gimmick known to literature, along with others he’s invented for this novel. This gaudiness recalls the style of his early nonfiction masterpieces, such as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Pump House Gang, but it marks a deviation from his previous novels, which seem restrained by comparison. Back to Blood is not only saturated with exclamation points, italics, and capital letters—Wolfe hallmarks—but also ellipses (counterintuitively, since ellipses function as grammatical speed bumps); gratuitous bursts of foreign speech (“Todo el mundo had watched his heroics on television…‘Todo el mundo!’); a chain of colons to denote internal monologues (“::::::‘Belly-laughing?’ What does it mean, ‘belly-laughing’?::::::”); alliteration, particularly when he writes about sex (“lawless labial lips,” for instance, or “loamy loins,” a construction that appears multiple times in every one of his novels); repetition (“there were a couple of boring modern apartment towers glass glass glass glass sheer facade sheer facade sheer streaked facade”); onomatopoeia (“messh…cinnghh…neetz…guhn arrrgh…muhfughh…nooonmp…”); games with super- and subscript (the sound of a phone: “P l i n g pling pling p l i n g p l i n g p l i n g”); and other little tricks that only serve to lengthen, or “lengthen,” the page count needlessly. Like any novelty, these devices are fun at first, but over the course of a 704-page novel, the interruptions can come to seem like sheer torture:
::::::I feel too awful…I can’t get up. So what are you going to do, hang around here waiting for more abuse?:::::: With straining willpower he made himself get sheer torture! up.
Wolfe has heard all this before, of course, in loud chorus, and frankly deserves credit for refusing to dilute his formula in the slightest. Back to Blood doesn’t have the thrilling narrative energy of The Bonfire of the Vanities or the first half of A Man in Full, but it is uncompromisingly faithful to Wolfe’s vision of what a realistic novel should be. Over the decades he has been accused—by Norman Mailer, among others—of cynically compromising his prodigious talent in order to write best sellers, but with each novel, that criticism increasingly seems wrongfooted. Wolfe panders to the reader with his gratuitous explanations and a vigorous aversion to nuance or subtlety (restaurants in the novel are named “Balzac’s” and “Gogol’s”). But it’s difficult to believe that Wolfe is motivated by yet another hefty advance. In his Harper’s essay, he wrote:
The intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel—a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class. In Victorian England, the intelligentsia regarded Dickens as “the author of the uneducated, undiscriminating public.” It required a chasm of time—eighty years, in fact—to separate his work from its vulgar milieu so that Dickens might be canonized in British literary circles.
Reading Back to Blood, you get the sense that Wolfe’s ideal reader is neither a member of today’s “intelligentsia” nor “the uneducated, undiscriminating public,” but somebody who is not now alive on the earth—and may not be born for another seven or eight decades. Let that reader, encountering Wolfe’s novels at the dawn of the twenty-second century, judge whether they are our era’s Bleak House and Great Expectations, or instead resemble more closely the enormously popular fiction of Dickens’s contemporary Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which have all but vanished, save for several endearing phrases: “rank is a great beautifier,” “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and “it was a dark and stormy night….”
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.” ↩