Tom Wolfe, whose previous novels took on — and took apart — New York and Atlanta, takes on Miami in his latest, Back to Blood. Not to give anything away, but in this one Miami wins. Wolfe, for all his rhetorical flourishes, closely-observed details and perfectly-realized tableaux, paints a brilliant portrait of Miami but can’t quite bring it into focus.
With some time off over the holidays I finally got to sit down and read Back to Blood. It’s a literary bon-bon, vicious fun and chock full of the old shock of recognition. It’s Miami, warts and more warts. Wolfe takes us on a tour of the city’s best and worst neighborhoods — everywhere from Overtown to Fisher Island to Hialeah — and sketches the inhabitants in fine detail down to every wrinkle and wen, plus some shot up with Juvederm and Restylane. We recognize many of these characters from civic, business and political life. None comes off here as heroic.
But we shouldn’t expect heroes from Wolfe, whose metier is satire. And, boy, does Miami provide plenty of material. The editors of the Herald come off as a bunch of Ivy League geeks and dweebs. The Cuban mayor of Miami, whose nickname translates to “God,” is a slick, conniving charlatan. The black police chief is a puffed-up narcissist whose life is complicated by Officer Nestor Camacho, a muscle-bound naif who is the novel’s ostensible protagonist.
Wolfe puts Nestor and a classically Anglo Herald reporter named John Smith at the center of the narrative, which climaxes — though not very dramatically — with their exposure of a $70 million art scam involving a Russian emigre. Along the way there are excursions to the Columbus Day Regatta in all its drunken bawdiness and a devastating portrait of status seekers at Art Basel Miami Beach. Wolfe has met the enemy and it is us.
The problem is that Back to Blood isn’t so much a novel as a clever and often amusing series of set pieces strung loosely together by a not terribly compelling narrative. Wolfe has clearly spent a lot of time in Miami doing his research — his long list of acknowledgements in the preface is revealing in that regard. These local guides gave him entree to virtually every part of the city, which he describes with gusto. He’s a master at detail and much of what he describes — and ridicules — are people and situations that drive us nuts, too.
But it’s one thing to accurately describe a city and its excesses and another to burrow inside and render it in all its richness and complexity. Wolfe reduces Miami to a collection of warring tribes whose primal instinct is to always go “back to blood”— to stick with your own kind, to defend your tribal turf. Yes, we often do that, but we are much larger than that. More generous. More forgiving.
Tom Wolfe created the New Journalism with break-through reportage in the ’60s and ’70s that drew on his fascination with popular culture seen through the prism and erudition of a Ph.D. from Yale in American studies. He gave us the Black Panthers hanging out at Leonard Bernstein’s, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the Pump House Gang and more. We are grateful.
Then he turned to fiction, where his hero is Balzac. Like the great Frenchman he aspires to present a panoramic view of society by holding a mirror up to nature and reflecting the zeitgeist in all its glorious and rococo detail. He reminds me of the photo-realist painters of the ’70s whose work was indistinguishable from photography, but lacked soulfulness. Back to Blood lacks Miami’s soul. He’s got the exterior right, but misses our interior life.
One day there will be a great novel about Miami. Back to Blood is not it.