Back to Blood

Cover of "Back to Blood" by Tom Wolfe (HANDOUT / October 19, 2012)

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.

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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.