Nov 16 2012

Why does Tom Wolfe's Miami sound like a Yale alumni reunion?

Eric Benson

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Tom Wolfe's new novel, Back to Blood, opens with a bravura prologue that seems to promise the sharp-witted, delightfully overblown Tom Wolfe novel we've been awaiting. A Yalie and Wolfe stand-in named Edward T. Topping IV ("White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to the maximum, to the point of satire") has just moved from respectable Chicago to steamy South Florida to take over as editor in chief of the Miami Herald. On a night out with his equally WASPy wife, Mac, the couple gets slapped in their prim-and-proper faces by their newly adopted fire-blooded city. Topping and Mac have just found a parking space for their sensible Mistubishi Green Elf hybrid outside of a trendy restaurant (improbably named Balzac's) when a sassy, Ferrari-driving Cuban beauty roars up to steal it. "YOU'RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!" Mac screams at the Cubana. "No, mía" malhablada puta gorda," she answers. "We een Mee-ah-mee now!"

If only. Back to Blood is ostensibly about race and status in twenty-first-century Miami, a city that, in Wolfe's account, is run by parochial Cubans, bankrolled by scheming Russians, and blighted by poor blacks who are always on the verge of rioting. But despite the author's months of shoe-leather research, the city proves to be nothing more than a screen onto which he can project his familiar morality play about the venality of new money, the perversity of its obsessions, and, of course, our society-wide knife-fight over status. In Wolfe's world, nearly everyone is a shameless social-climber, almost no one is likeable, and the whole messy journey turns out to be a slog.

Our hero, at least, is quasi-sympathetic. When we meet Nestor Camacho—twenty-five years old, as muscle-bound as an NFL halfback—he's just been assigned to the Miami PD's elite Marine Patrol unit and is showing off his strength in an acrobatic rescue of a would-be Cuban refugee stuck on the bird's nest of a tall ship. He's briefly convinced he'll be greeted as a hero. He's all over TV! His fellow officers marvel at his cojones! And then Nestor goes home to the Cuban enclave of Hialeah and learns that he's a pariah. The rescued man, detained at sea, will be sent back to Fidel's Cuba and denied his American dream. Nestor is a traitor to his people. At his grandmother's birthday pig roast, Nestor faces his family's wrath—he's a pumped-up coward, skilled only at mindlessly following unjust orders. When his neighborhood sweetheart, Magdalena, arrives on the scene, he thinks it's his salvation. But she's only there to tell Nestor that she's seeing someone else, and with that, our hero zooms off in his Camaro looking back at the "tiny huts all in rows, roasting on an endless arid prairie of concrete."

That's the last we see of Cuban Miami. For the next 550 pages, Wolfe's characters traipse around the campy world of Miami's powerful and ultrarich. The plot grows farcical. Nestor and a cub reporter named John Smith, a recently graduated Yalie who goes on assignment in a navy blazer and khakis, investigate a multimillion-dollar scandal that involves forged paintings, Russian oligarchs, and Wolfe's apparent disdain for modern art. (Their sleuthing has all the grace and professionalism of Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis's bumbling on HBO's Bored to Death, except Nestor and John's hijinks aren't necessarily meant to be funny.) Meanwhile, it turns out that Nestor's ex Magdalena left him for a social-climbing psychiatrist with an expertise in porn addiction. (Through the shrink, we get to peep in at the money-orgy of Art Basel Miami.) After finally realizing that her porn-expert boyfriend is a creep, Magdalena takes up with a charming, devastatingly handsome Russian who just happens to be the Bond villain behind Nestor and John's scandal. There's also a subplot about a Haitian family, but Wolfe gives it short-shrift, so I will too.

Loose and inconsistent plotting isn't Back to Blood's biggest flaw—plenty of good books have overcome a shambling narrative. The real problem is that Wolfe has become a prisoner to his commitment to social realism, to novels that return "the dirt of everyday life" to American fiction. For Wolfe, the "social novel" seems to mean a very long, quasi-Dickensian romp with lots and lots of dialogue—a form that's poorly suited to his talents.

In the 1960s and '70s, when Wolfe wrote his celebrated "New Journalism" pieces about California car culture, hippie excess, and limousine-liberal hypocrisy, he wasn't the most dogged reporter or the most absorbing narrator, but he was a once-in-a-generation explainer. The central drama of Wolfe's non-fiction was rarely related to story or characters. Story and character were just mechanisms to unlock the secret order of things, the forces no one before Wolfe had realized were driving the action.

Take Wofle's ballad of the early space program, The Right Stuff. There was no mystery to any reader in 1979, when the book was published, as to the outcome of the Mercury missions. Nor are the book's descriptions of behind-the-scenes NASA infighting really all that riveting. What makes The Right Stuff great is that Wolfe treats what are essentially extended footnotes as the meat of his story. In one of them, Wolfe makes a case that unflappable, cool-as-ice airline-pilot-speak ("Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We've got a little 'ol red light up here on the control panel that's tryin' to tell us the landin' gears're not . . . uh . . . lockin' into position.") is actually an imitation of Chuck Yeager's West Virginian vocal cadence. In a short paragraph, Wolfe has not only elevated Yeager to the very top of aviation's Mount Olympus, he has revealed the logic behind a key trait of pilots that pilots almost certainly don't know about themselves.

Wolfe doesn't really care about individual motivations; he cares about how characters are driven, often unwittingly, by larger social forces. So how does Wolfe reveal these larger social forces in Back to Blood, a novel that is almost entirely made up of dialogue? By forcing his characters to speak in Wikipedia-ready blurbs. "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," the city's born-and-bred Miamian mayor inexplicably tells its longtime Miamian police chief. Wolfe tells us about SWAT-team training and wrestling technique, about the forgotten origins of Miami's city hall and the superiority of newsprint at displaying color. And every time he does it, it's in the voice of a character who seems to have no reason to voice the words he or she is saying or thinking other than to share information with the reader. The consequence is that nearly every character—black, white, Cuban, Haitian, male, female—thinks and talks like Tom Wolfe.

Towards the end of Back to Blood, Nestor—after weathering hundreds of pages of his creator's obnoxious lectures—is forced to reflect on his own intellectual insecurities: "He knew so many retards with BAs after their names, he could publish a reference book called Who's a Loser. But along the way they picked up all this . . . stuff you needed for conversations. Magdalena used to call it 'all that museum stuff,' and that was his problem now." Back to Blood isn't really a social novel. It's a book full of "that museum stuff." At its best it shows how fancy words and obscure factoids can be wielded like shivs, stabbing any character silly enough to venture too far from his native turf. More often, the words and factoids seem to have little purpose beyond Wolfe's exuberant desire to show off what he knows. His characters—from beefy Nestor to the slimy Russian oligarch—may come from all walks of life, but they're little more than the puppets of a monotone ventriloquist.

Eric Benson is an editor at New York magazine, where he writes about national politics and jazz.

Ctrl-Alt

November 16, 2012
1:26 pm

"The consequence is that nearly every character—black, white, Cuban, Haitian, male, female—thinks and talks like Tom Wolfe."

This is the second time I have heard this complaint about Wolfe's new novel, and while I'm not that big of a Wolfe fan, I do have to ask: Who would you like him to sound like? You do realize that the entire novel actually takes place in Tom Wolfe's head, right? That Tom Wolfe is in his 70s? He's Tom Wolfe. He writes like Tom Wolfe. He sounds like Tom Wolfe. It's like taking DeLillo to task because all of the characters sound like Don DeLillo. Or how every character is a DFW story sounds exactly like DFW. I really, honestly do not understand this criticism. It seems as if the reviewer is asking for a level of realism beyond which even Tom Wolfe can deliver, or would probably want to deliver. Wolfe's style is his style. Wanting his style to be someone else's is like going to McDonald's, eating a Big Mac, and wondering why it always tastes like a Big Mac. "Every character sounds like Tom Wolfe." Yeah, they do. Duh. This is becoming one of the classic critical cliches of contemporary criticism. Maybe you would like Tom Wolfe's characters to be mouthpieces for Carl Hiaasen instead? A fiction writer's job, contrary to popular opinion, is not to be a Danny Gans or a Rich Little and channel a thousand different voices. That's a trick for cheap stage acts. And also, just in case you weren't aware of this, when you get older, I mean, when you get really old, your personality solidifies, it constricts, and you are who you have always been, only more so. It happens to everyone. It seems kind of petty to me to take a writer to task for writing something that sounds too much like themselves. It stacks the deck against the writer from the get go.

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