In "Back to Blood," Tom Wolfe takes us to Miami, to what the book jacket suggests is "the American city of the future," a town built on the dreams of immigrants and newcomers who believe with equal fervor in reinvention and/or the witness protection program. It's a place where we run out of East Coast, with borders both liquid and primordial, hemmed in by the ocean and the Everglades. It's a town which my husband calls the planet of really nice cars, and which I call, with perhaps fatal earnestness, the land of effortless diversity.
F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that in America, there are no second acts, an assertion that falls apart in Miami, as the ultimate act two, with its gift for resurrection, over and over, wave upon wave, day in and day out.
Wolfe's Miami is also a tribal town, a theme park based on bloodlines, as the title of the book indicates, with each demographic and ethnic group claiming territory, pop culture, cuisine, the airwaves, whatever they can get to turn themselves into a critical mass.
In his first book since 2004, Wolfe creates his usual robust cast of characters, including a young Cuban policeman named Nestor Camacho; his Cuban girlfriend, Magdalena, who works as a nurse for a doctor who specializes, supposedly, in curing men of their addiction to online porn; an uptight WASP editor from the Miami Herald named Edward T. Topping IV and the young WASP reporter named John Smith, both Yale educated; a black chief of police; a professor of Creole who tries to hide his Haitian pedigree; and a Russian philanthropist whose donation of $70 million worth of art to a museum means that it promptly gets named after him. The art's alleged fraudulence supplies a delicious subplot.
When I lived in Miami in the '80s, there was a popular bumper sticker, "Honk if you Hate Culture." It is still a town where many of the patrons of major musical and dance events leave early because avoiding traffic is more important than staying for the end.
At 25, Nestor still lives with his parents in a cramped house in Hialeah, where the paved-over front yards are filled with cars and with statues of saints. The joke is that the housewives hose off their driveways with such diligence that it is amazing they have not caused a skyscraper to sprout. Nestor's pretty Cuban girlfriend is working for a "schlocktor," a doctor who believes being famous on TV is more important than curing people. Wolfe writes of the doctor: "Ike Walsh was much shorter than he appeared to be on television. But come to think of it, he was always sitting down on 60 Minutes . He looked even more ominous, however. His perpetually tanned skin, his narrow, steely eyes, his high cheekbones, his wide jaws and low forehead, which was a stony little cliff beneath his mane of thick black hair, very thick inky black — he looked like a real savage, barely constrained by civilized clothes, his jacket and tie. Those narrow little robot eyes of his did not blink once."
As with all of Wolfe's work, the true main character is the human comedy.
Mr. and Mrs. Topping, none too happy with each other in the prelude that precedes the true opening scene, are caught in traffic in a neighborhood called Brickell, late to meet their friends at a restaurant whose name is a big, fat literary wink: Balzac's.
If Balzac, that famed French chronicler of social nuance, is an influence, Alexis de Tocqueville also appears to be leading Wolfe to the equally rich territory of what it means to be American, especially in a city where the Americanos are a minority along with the blacks and the Haitians and the Nicaraguans. The Cubans are the majority.
Before the Cubans arrived, Miami was a self-satisfied Southern town, a well-fed cat dozing on a pink stucco windowsill warmed by an average year round temperature of approximately 80 degrees. What was Miami known for? Early bird specials, shuffleboard and crooners singing annoying songs.
Hardly the stuff of banner headlines.
The first wave of Cuban exiles were those with the money to flee Communism — 62,000 in 1960, 67,000 in 1961, and 66,000 in 1962 — adding to a population of about 30,000 Cubans already living in Miami before the revolution. Havana had long been Miami's playground, with Pan Am running night flights for high rollers who liked the drinks and the soft winds, the gambling and the music, and women whose hips knew a tropical trick or two. Encouraged to come to the United States, Cubans were given rent subsidies of $80 to $100 a month, health services, some job training, monthly relief checks and surplus food distribution, including peanut butter, canned meats and cheese. If the new arrivals could not find work in their fields of expertise, they seized anything, including the lowest rungs, taking jobs that required no training and language skills. The city had a whole new underclass of janitors who used to be lawyers and doctors and professors back home. At first, the immigrants believed the displacement was temporary: Any minute Fidel Castro would be out of power, and Cuba would be theirs again. But as time went on and Castro did not budge, temporary became permanent, and "exilio" became a way of life. To this day, anything that makes Castro look good or that prevents a freedom-loving countryman from entering this country is considered an act of treason to "la causa."
And thus we come to the dramatic opener, told in the dependably ornate and adrenalized Wolfe style, including sentences so top-heavy with caps and itals and onomatopoeia that they seem to be in a car chase with themselves.
While out on prestigious marine patrol, an extremely fit Nestor saves a Cuban intruder on a yacht who has likely been deposited on the water by smugglers of human cargo. He eludes capture by scrambling to the top of the foremast of a yacht, where from the distance he is easy to mistake for "a clump of dirty laundry."
Nestor swings himself upward, and when he gets to the top, he locks the would-be immigrant in his legs and makes a hands-only descent in the middle of rush hour while gawkers on the Rickenbacker Causeway and his colleagues cheer him on. (It is pure Wolfe to note further along in the narrative that the feat of climbing rope arms-only used to be an Olympic sport, abolished in 1932.)
Hours later, the cheers turn to jeers when back home in Hialeah. Nestor's family turns on him as a traitor for having allowed the Coast Guard to take custody of the poor newcomer and treat him like a "drowned rat" who will be returned to Cuba after the publicity dies down. (The U.S. government has a unique policy for Cubans entering the country: If they make it to land, they are called "dry foot" and get to stay. "Wet foots" have to leave.)
The only bright light for Nestor is that the young John Smith from the Miami Herald has enshrined him on the front page with the headline "ROPE-CLIMB COP IN 'MAST'-ERFUL RESCUE." But a good write-up in the Herald is the opposite of an endorsement in Nestor's universe, which is held in increasing contempt among Latins, especially its Spanish version, known as "Yo no creo El Miami Herald," whose headline describing the same event takes the point of view of the drenched deportee: "ARRESTED! EIGHTEEN METERS FROM FREEDOM!"
The mayor orders the police chief to demote Nestor, and at first he is given a lateral transfer, only to have his career continue to go south when an edited iPhone video of him taking down a black drug dealer makes it seem as if he is a racist lout. Once again, his heroics are treated as misdeeds, and Nestor is forced to go on leave.
"Everything happens at parties," someone once said, a precept that Wolfe takes to heart, using several parties throughout the narrative to gather his boisterous crew of characters and set them off against each other: a Cuban pig roast where Nestor's neighbors and kinfolk all turn on him, a college-boy orgy on a private island where the priapism on display in "I Am Charlotte Simmons" gets to pulsate on the page once again in all its naked glory, to a museum benefit in which the tawdry alliance between money and art is yet another bonfire for the vanities.
As usual, Wolfe delights in sticking it to what he thinks of as the politically correct crowd, all those liberals he says were once bullied and who now turn to paternalistic laws and elaborate expressions of respect, and wind up bullying others with self-righteousness.
Readers in Dade County, Fla., will likely be examining this book with magnifying glasses to find errors in the author's reading of Miami as a social text. Early on, describing a young woman of means, a character asks, "what Latin woman in Miami could be this obviously rich other than a Cuban?" Plenty of women from Argentina and Venezuela and Panama, and certainly even former Gov. Jeb Bush's wife from Mexico, might have a different answer. Wolfe has a pig roast at Nestor's family start at 2 p.m., to which the guests arrived shortly thereafter, a feat of punctuality that would be considered almost historic within the Latin community in Miami with which I am familiar. And he has the current Miami Cuban community acting as if it is second-class; many prominent Anglo families in Miami consider it marrying up when their children wed Cubans.
Miami is a great city that rates a great novel. Wolfe has come close, but he retreats sometimes and gives us farce rather than tragedy, a cartoon instead of a mural. But when he is on-target, as in his choice of the complicated character of Nestor to anchor the narrative, he is peerless.
Even while officially relieved of his duties, Nestor still continues with his sleuthing into several nefarious activities, and in the end, as he works to restore his tarnished reputation, he regains his good name as well as the attention of at least three fabulous women. Life may be a farce to Wolfe, but it can still have a happy ending, especially in Miami, under that ever-present "great tropical skillet in the sky."
Madeleine Blais is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald who teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts.
Back to Blood By Tom Wolfe, Little, Brown, 704 pages, $30
Miami's welding pot
An excerpt from "Back to Blood" by Tom Wolfe
At that point the Mayor's expression and his tone turned fatherly. "Cy, I want to tell you a couple of things about this city. There are things you probably already know, but sometimes it helps to hear them out loud. I know it helps me. ... Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell — in the world — whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants … recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years …. And that's a hell of thing, when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you — I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, "Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody. ... But we can't leave it at that. We've got a responsibility, you and me. We've got to make Miami — not a melting pot, because that's not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes. We can't melt 'em down. ... but we can weld 'em down … weld 'em down. … What do I mean by that? I mean we can't mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they're all on the same level plan. You know what I mean?