At 6 p.m. this Sunday evening, Nov. 11, Tom Wolfe will be the opening-night speaker at the Miami Book Fair International at Miami-Dade College. For the cosmopolitan New Journalism titan, the appearance will likely feel like a homecoming of sorts. During 2008 and 2009, Wolfe is reported to have spent as much time in Miami as he did at his home in New York, researching his new novel “Back to Blood” with an assist from his guide and translator, former Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral.
I’ve spent every free moment of the past two weeks reading “Back to Blood” – all 704 pages of it – and I can confirm that his sense of Miami is scalding, blackly comic, borderline absurd and, above all, accurate.
The book’s thesis is laid out in its prologue. As the henpecked, Anglo newspaper editor of the Miami Herald, and his wife, lose a parking space outside a fashionable restaurant to a hot-blooded Cuban tart, the resulting confrontation leads to a revelation in the editor: That in lieu of religion or any other unfashionable divider, the country (and Miami) is returning to nativist cultural bloodlines to create primal schisms; everybody’s going “back to blood,” as it were.
The rest of the sweeping, multi-character narrative consists of variations on that theme. Exploring a sweltry, humid environment where, as he puts it, anyone who isn’t Cuban is considered a minority, Wolfe surveys a slew of characters thrown into Miami’s melting pot, wherein nothing actually melts; the elements just rub and chafe against each other, coexisting but never peacefully. There are two central characters: Nestor Camacho, a Cuban Marine Patrol officer whose death-defying apprehension of a anti-Castro illegal immigrant on Biscayne Bay leads to his ostracization from the very community he represents; and Magdalena Otero, his former Cuban girlfriend from Hialeah, whose involvement with an Anglo celebrity doctor and a Russian oligarch lead to some humiliating consequences.
Wolfe also grants a few chapters to a the Lantiers, a family of Haitian immigrants, including a college professor who embraces his French heritage over the populist Creole language he’s subjected to teaching; Cyrus Booker, the city’s imposing, African-American police chief who is subjected to the indignities of the city’s Cuban mayor whenever a crisis rears its head; and to Herald editor Edward Topping IV, a journalistically impotent figurehead who knows better than to rock Miami’s boat about its multicultural strife.
Self-serving, desirous of unattainable status, and with minds that drift constantly toward sex, the characters in “Back to Blood” represent the vain, solipsistic id of modern America, and Miami in particular. In the filthiest sequence ever in a Wolfe book – a chapter titled “The Columbus Day Regatta” – Magdalena and her insufferable new beau, a specialist in porn-addition therapy who is himself a porn addict, join a seaside bacchanal on Fisher Island and witness one ridiculously salacious act after another, reported by Wolfe with astonished satire; it’s “Jersey Shore” hedonism as translated by an erudite intellectual.
Indeed, Wolfe once again proves to be a master of the epic, cinematic set-piece, in chapters that sprawl on for upwards of 40 pages without a section break. He lingers with Melville-esque attention on the minutest details, from the architectural extravagances of Mr. Lantier’s office to the vast array of multicolored Solo cups scattered on a party boat at the Columbus Day Regatta to the type of extra-sensory eyewear used by Miami police officers when working stakeouts.
Wolfe is perhaps at his best in the rarefied world of contemporary art, a domain he has long been skewering with hot nonfiction pokers. One of the story’s multiple threads involves a case of art forgery among the Russian mob, and along the way Wolfe’s characters wind up at the VIP opening of Art Basel, whose carnivorous collectors are brilliantly compared to maggots infesting an animal’s corpse. Later, he satires the grimy glamour of Wynwood as a haven for “droves of well-educated and well-heeled people skipping and screaming with nostalgie de la boue, ‘nostalgia for the mud’ … eager to inhale the emanations of Art and other Higher Things amid the squalor of it all.”
The thought comes to mind that we don’t read Wolfe so much for the stories as the acrid atmosphere surrounding them. The book is filled with fun onomatopoeia, from the clink clink clatter of aluminum walkers outside an Active Adults home in Hallandale to the SMACK of a Marine Patrol Safe Boat as it hits the water to the BEAT-unng thung of strip-club muzak. This always makes for lively reading.
If Wolfe does slip up every now and then – and there are a couple of chapters that fail to engage, try as they might – it’s because his dialogue will begin to sound inauthentic coming from his characters. They’ll wax on about modern art in a way that is clearly Wolfe’s opinion, not the characters’, or they’ll suddenly employ diction that is above their level of education. He’s better at the big, sweeping picture that the small gestures and obligatory chitchat his creations must engage in, but the larger point remains true to the end – Wolfe has captured Miami, pus-filled warts and all.
Sunday’s “Evening With Tom Wolfe” costs $10, and will take place at the Chapman Conference Center at Miami-Dade College, 300 N.E. Second Ave., Miami. For information, call 305/237-3258 or visit miamibookfair.com.