This book review was originally published in 2012. Tom Wolfe died on Tuesday at 87.
Sprawling, messy, maddening, exhilarating, exhausting, over-caffeinated and hyper-punctuated, Tom Wolfe’s giddy Back to Blood is as excessive as the city it celebrates and eviscerates. The satire lands on obvious Miami targets — the rich, the shallow, the venal, the felonious, status seekers and zealots of every stripe —and the punches connect with all the subtlety of a storm surge. It will offend sensibilities all around, but the novel’s pointed observations are dangerously close to reality: Wolfe, Master of the New Journalism Universe, has done his homework and done it well.
Plenty of outsiders have tried to capture the spectacle that is Miami, and some, like Joan Didion ( Miami, 1987), have succeeded to an extent. But nobody has ever conveyed the intricacies of the city and its roiling cultural cauldron with such breathless, gaudy literary acrobatics as Wolfe does in Back to Blood, so named for the tribal lines along which our loyalties lie. In the same way he excavated the secrets and lies of New York in TheBonfire of the Vanities and Atlanta in A Man in Full, the canny and indefatigable author pounded the pavement from South Beach to Hialeah, returned to his desk in tune to the erratic pulse of Miami and documented its excesses with lurid, unrestrained energy.
When the Marine Patrol spins through Biscayne Bay slamming into wave after wave, “Officer Nestor Camacho’s fellow SMACK cops here in the cockpit the two fat SMACK americanos they love this stuff love it love driving the boat SMACK. . . . ”
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A laughing doctor attempts to tell a story this way: “AahhhHAHHHock hock hock you should’ve heard ddahhhock hock hock, Maurice eeegghehehehahhhHAHAaghhhock hock hock! He tells the guy — he says, ‘Gosh, that’s terrible! I’m going to try to find someone who is on the board ahhhHAHHHhock hock hock.”
Oh, yes. Infuriating. Back to Blood is pervasively flamboyant, a passionate argument against (or maybe for) the bloodlessness of preening postmodernism. But flamboyance is Miami’s native tongue. This is a book that yells and screams and sometimes makes you long for peace and quiet, but you won’t be able to ignore it — especially if you live here.
Of course, “[I]f you really want to understand Miami,” one character says, “you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.” Sometimes we even hate our own. A wide array of characters courses through Back to Blood — among them a lusty sex-addiction therapist; his young Cuban-American nurse, desperate to leave Hialeah for a more exotic existence on South Beach; a Russian oligarch who may have stocked a new art museum named after him with forgeries; an African-American police chief at odds with a Cuban-American mayor; a socially connected billionaire with a vicious STD; a skin color-preoccupied Haitian professor; an ambitious WASP journalist trying to make a name for himself at The Miami Herald — but the novel’s primary focus is Officer Nestor Camacho.
Nestor (“Nes- ter,” to his Anglo colleagues) only wants to flaunt his impressive physique, bed his girlfriend, Magdalena and earn the admiration of his superiors. Instead, he keeps inadvertently enflaming the city’s ethnic factions, most significantly his own. Caught up in a dramatic, televised wet foot/dry foot controversy — South Floridians will need no explanation of this bizarre immigration policy, though Wolfe offers one — Nestor ends up a pariah in his own community.
“How could you do that to a man of your own blood?” roars his father, who arrived from Cuba on a dinghy propelled by two cafe umbrellas as sails. “Everyone knows! They turn on the radio, and all they hear is ‘ Traidor! traidor! traidor!’ ”
Back to Blood has plenty of moments of comedy, including scenes at a Broward assisted-living facility where the clatter of aluminum walkers on pavement signals the race is on for lemon meringue pie. But there is nothing in the novel that couldn’t happen tomorrow right outside your window. Who hasn’t heard the pathetic cry of the outraged Anglo: “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” or its mocking response: “ You een Mee-ah-mee now!” Phonetically rendered accents permeate Back to Blood, and they will make you squirm. But many of them sound like home.
Wolfe has clearly tried (and failed) to find parking in Mary Brickell Village; tasted a pastelito and watched women hose down the concrete on Saturday mornings in Hialeah (“the real Little Havana”); witnessed the excruciating avarice and ignorance of greedy Art Basel fans who care less about buying important art than outbidding their competitors and making a splash.
“You’re not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying. You may be great. You may be iconic, the way Cy Twombly is, but you’re not cutting-edge,” says a disdainful art advisor who directs her clients toward the trendy works, not the lasting ones. Wolfe’s descriptions of these rich white men drooling for status is perhaps most devastating of all: “They were a wriggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots rooting over and under one another in a heedless, literally headless, frenzy to get to the dead meat.”
Back to Blood is less about character than it is about chaos, and its plot tends to wander from one extreme event to the next, from the grotesque sexuality of the Columbus Day Regatta to racially tinged violence between cops and suspects at a crack house in Overtown to a Sunny Isles strip club run by Russian gangsters. It’s big and wild, and its characters are larger than life. Whether we like this book or not, we can’t deny there’s an awful lot of us here.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.