Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood, is about Miami, but it’s also about Tom Wolfe Doing Miami. Wolfe spent several years in and out of Florida on research trips, and, especially for a Miami native like me, it’s not at all difficult to imagine the reporter-novelist, now eighty-one, dressed in his iconic white suit, making his way through the city, asking questions and taking notes. (If you’re having trouble with the visuals, you can see a documentary on the novel’s creation, Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, which will be released simultaneously with the book.) Wolfe has essentially taken his trademark hyperactive prose, onomatopoeic outbursts, and status obsession south — even further than 1998′s Atlanta-set A Man in Full — to a steamy tropical climate with a combustible mix of racial and ethnic tensions. The result is a fast-paced read that, despite occasional pleasures, is relatively disposable.
Back to Blood opens with a prologue featuring Edward T. Topping IV, the weak-willed editor in chief of the Miami Herald, and his wife, Mac, Chicago transplants who belong to a “dying genus”: they’re WASPs. They’re searching for a parking space at the city’s latest hot spot and are thrilled when one miraculously opens up. But as the Toppings wait patiently with their blinker on, a young Latina in a Ferrari guns her engine and steals the space out from under them. During the heated, all-caps confrontation that follows, Mac screams in English while the driver screams back at her in Spanish. Finally, Mac shouts, “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!” Her tormentor suddenly calms down, gives Mac a mocking smile, and says softly, “No,…we een Mee-ah-mee now!”
It’s a curious episode, pointing up how in Miami, the americanos are not only outnumbered but faced with newcomers who refuse to play by the rules; only losers wait politely for parking spots with their turn signals duly blinking. Mac gives up the fight, suffering “something far worse” than anger: humiliation. And while Mac does not reappear in the book’s remaining 700 pages (WASPs, it seems, don’t have much place in Wolfe’s Miami), we witness humiliation over and over again. Wolfe’s many references to the South Florida heat and to his characters’ various brushes with humiliation suggest that the inhabitants of Miami exist in a constant state of sweaty degradation.
The character at the center of the action is Nestor Camacho, a, uh, macho twenty-five-year-old police officer of Cuban descent. When we first meet him, he’s being humiliated by two patronizing Anglo superiors, who make casually racist assumptions about his Cuban heritage. “They still think we’re aliens,” Nestor muses to himself. “If there’s any aliens in Miami now, it’s them.” The three are traveling by boat to investigate a disturbance caused by a man who’s climbed aboard a ship and ascended its seventy-foot-tall mast in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The man turns out to be an anti-Castro dissident who’s been smuggled to Miami and is seeking asylum, which by law is granted to any Cuban who manages to set foot on U.S. soil. When Nestor is sent up the mast after the refugee, he brings him down safely but sets in motion his arrest and probable return to Cuba. Nestor is treated like a hero by his fellow officers and the Miami Herald after the daring rescue, but he experiences a fresh round of humiliation at the hands of his family and the broader Cuban community, by whom he is considered a traitor.
A series of unlikely plot machinations place Nestor at the center of seemingly every momentous police case in South Florida, including the bust of an inner-city crack house (the racist rants uttered by Nestor’s Cuban partner are surreptitiously videotaped and wind up on YouTube), a violent incident at a high school involving a Haitian gang member, and a scheme by a wealthy Russian oligarch to donate fraudulent artwork to a Miami museum. Meanwhile, Nestor is dumped — humiliated — by his beautiful Cuban girlfriend, Magdalena, whose social climbing culminates in a dalliance with the Russian oligarch, who in turn humiliates her. (Magdalena’s knack for getting invited to the best parties allows Wolfe to do some scene-setting at notoriously hedonistic Miami events associated with Art Basel and the Columbus Day Regatta.)
Champion of realism that he is, Wolfe, in broad strokes, does get at something true about the ugly side of Miami race relations. For instance, describing the fraught dynamics between the heavily Cuban police force and the high-crime neighborhoods of Liberty City and Overtown, he writes, “Black people looked upon Cuban cops as foreign invaders who one day dropped from the sky like paratroopers and took over the Police Department and started shoving black people around…black people who had lived in Miami forever.” He also captures many small details of South Florida life, from the smells and tastes of Cuban coffee and pastries to the Miami Herald‘s unfortunate predilection for scant text dwarfed by huge headlines and enormous pictures. (He doesn’t get everything right, though: at one point Nestor, in his car, worries about being pulled over while speaking on his cell phone, but Florida continues to be one of a few states allowing the use of handheld devices while driving.)
The problem, though, is that there’s no one here to care about, much less root for — not only because none of the characters has depth but because they all lack depth in precisely the same way. Whether Cuban, Haitian, white, or black, they’re all playing the same weary game, trying to find wealth and fame in Miami despite what they perceive as constraints of race and class. In the end I’d offer readers of Back to Blood the same advice I offer visitors to the hometown I love. Try not to overthink it; just give in to the garish, mindless fun.