Skip to Content

I first met Tom Wolfe at a table I had booked for lunch in London’s West End. I hadn’t known about the white suit, but there it was, already trademarked, the shoulders filled out then, and the tie a closer match to those electric blue eyes. I don’t remember what we talked about (who used a tape recorder in the Sixties?), just that I was in the presence of a reverse Hemingway paradigm, on literary ground that, if not exactly cracked open, as with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, had at least shifted tectonically. Wolfe’s new journalism pioneered sentences that flung punctuation in the air, printing the dashes and ellipses where they landed and piling electric verbs on kandy-kolored adjectives to catch the zeitgeist of a generation that had moved from baseball and crinolines to racing cars and rags.

Over a writing span of forty years and six books, each new Wolfe manifesto wrestled its characters to the ground, albeit with the distending biceps of an aging gladiator who comes to rely increasingly on technique over muscle. Enter Back to Blood, all 703 pages of it gouged from an eon of struggle and writer’s block. Wolfe was some years younger when he undertook it, and so was Miami. The title must have seemed defining at a time when the mafia was a red tide ebbing from our shores, when the pastels of Miami Vice were stained by muggings and drug busts, when the Mariel boatlift opened floodgates that left a festering wound. But the novel’s timeframe is set in the explicitly now. With Camillus House for the homeless demolished to make way for a park, the dilapidated Orange Bowl replaced by a shiny stadium for the Marlins, palm trees waving along a spiffed up Biscayne Boulevard, and the Rubells presiding over Wynwood in a former DEA warehouse, the very atmosphere has gentrified.

What then are we to make of “back to blood?” Blood diamonds? Blood oranges? AIDS? No. Acting as a metaphor for ethnic combustion in Wolfe’s construct of a culture “where everybody hates everybody” is animal blood-blood, coursing from smashed faces, spilled guts, and excrescence punched through orifices until the stench of unbridled fury drenches the pages, the plot, and the reader.

For what? In classic TW form, his manifesto of “le tout Miami” is assembled from arbitrary set pieces. There’s the Miami Herald newsroom (recently appointed editor from the North faces fallout from junior reporter’s scoop); a public school (teacher falsely blamed for student mayhem); a police station (Cuban-American mayor’s priorities shatter buddy system); the art world (Miami’s Art Basel frenzy overlays Miami Art Museum, where a corrupt Russian billionaire dictates terms); a psychiatrist’s practice presenting as a porn therapist’s wet dream (neon sail lights up with erect penis!); and a political brouhaha devolving from a Cuban cop ordered to bring a Cuban refugee down from the top of a vertiginous mast (which, with Elian Gonzales in recent memory, seems tempest-in-teapot by comparison). Weaving these scenarios together in and out of South Beach, Hialeah, Little Havana, Fisher Island, the Design District, and Wynwood are the terror, remorse, entitlement, self-hatred and neediness of facile stereotypes: Magdalena the lubricious Latina, Nestor the muscled Cubano, a dissed drug dealer, a screwed-up analyst, a ruthless art collector, a panicked editor, a prejudiced professor, and a supporting cast of homeless druggies, deep-décolletéed ravers, in-your-face students, snotty art advisors and kvetching Jewish widows that one would have thought past novels and TV shows had mined to extinction.

There are flashes of the old stuff—the noon sun is a skillet so hot you can fry an egg on it—and a fleeting moment of sweetness that wafts in on a whiff of flaky pastelitos. The problem is with the featured protagonist, Wolfe’s Miami, which is pieced together from stupendously wrong stuff. The sharp eye that reported so brilliantly on Las Vegas (“apart from Versailles, architecturally the only uniform city in the world”) trips on the same “so-Miami” hashtags that have felled lesser talents. Lurid neon, high decibels, corrupt politics, and drunken orgies smack of lazy research, and the street cred sought from local signage—Brickell’s, Rosa’s, Ricky’s—feels jotted down from a moving car. To the character who yells “I got it! I got it!” I whispered back, you haven’t got it at all.

With precious little cartilage, the bare bone action relies on Wolfe’s trademark exaggeration, exclamation marks, and pumped up energy to hold attention. His Miami is a squalid world of putrid garbage bags, ghetto rats, cheap plastic beads, used condoms, and puke fritters. Partygoers in cleavage are “dirty girls;” art patrons pushing through the lines at Art Basel Miami Beach are a “wriggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots.” The whole city is his punching bag, a crimson slab of meat flayed raw by pent-up rage against the bad cards that this zone of America has dealt Cubanos, Dominicans, Hondurans, Haitians, Afro-Americans and even, even! when they get in the way of the powers that be—WASPs. More problematic still, the conceit of a roman à clef, queued with cute transpositions of local names (The Random for The Raleigh, Chez Toi for Casa Tua, Caranza for Esperanza—chortle chortle) gets into a whole lot of trouble if it is not consistent, because savvy readers in detective mode will fit keys into every now-who-would-that-be lock. For example, “Norman” and “Fleischmann,” two repellent characters in the novel, happen to be riffs on the first and last names of highly respected citizens here. Closer to the bone, given that MAM has just undergone a sensitive name change to recognize Jorge Pérez after he stepped up to the plate with paintings and funding, when Wolfe’s Russian oligarch Sergei Korolyov has MAM’s name changed to his with a donation of paintings he knows to be forged, then aha! cries the reader, could Perez have pledged fakes? Alarmed, I called ubergallerist Fred Snitzer: already annoyed at showing up on page 345 in shiny black shoes, he came back like a rocket. “Ridiculous! I know for a fact that most of Pérez’s paintings were purchased from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I was called in to appraise them.” As I said, problematic.

There are stylistic problems, too: the signature punctuation gone amok (I never did figure out the intent of >+^>); characters half thought through (dumb blonde Magdalena has to ask the meaning of iconic but knows the word badinage); irredeemable accents (“bot I moss say ze kvestion” represents Russian); and long passages of exposition put in the mouths of his protagonists.

The overriding problem is that Wolfe’s heretofore brilliant one-two punch set-ups go no further here than Punch! Startle: Punch! Topple! The matured bam-bam TW vocabulary erupts in a basso continuo of characters railing on in the same high-octane voice—the dissed, the entitled, the climbers, the arrived, the blacks and the whites and all the shades in between. One set piece devotes nine pages to a screaming dispute over a parking space that an uppity Latina in 12-inch heels and a white Ferrari 403 ends up stealing from under the Mitsubishi Elf steering wheel of a respectable WASP wife who has the foulest mouth print can print. Get over it, I found myself saying aloud, recalling how many spaces have been swiped from under my Ford by unmannerly Caucasians in loafers. The furies that Wolfe unleashes should be terrifying; institutional powers flung by The Mayor, The Chief of Police, and The Press against, essentially, one short, muscled, Cuban everyman who is desperate to be loved, to matter, and climb to a secure rung on the professional ladder. But because every voice rails at the same pitch, all rages ring hollow.

And the resentment rails on, the least inflection can set it off—the length of a skirt, the pronunciation of a name—until all the men are sweating, the women are reeling, and the reader is exhausted. When Wolfe says of Nestor, “It all began to make his head hurt,” you know what he means. No matter, the author, against character, never steps back. The same weighted throb holds for the sex. Scene after scene, thongs, asses, vulvae, crotches and ripe melons climb mounds and plumb valleys, shoving a twisted hetero-porn universe (gay and transsexual are about the only psychic arenas left untouched) into a lavatory with no exit. Erotic sex calls on an artist at the peak of his game (oh for a Peter Arno moment, a Tom Jones moment, a Lolita moment!) but Wolfe’s primetime game here is Miami prurience, and the sludge of corruption that oozes into body and soul of the culture, the politics, the entire fabric of its doppleganger, Mee-ah-mee. Most discomforting, Wolfe’s Miami makes no place for the folks that mow the lawns, sew the garments, wash the cars, and play the tunes in the fragrant, balmy, multiform, everyday Miami, whose quotidian concerns you and I are familiar with. For lack of a purchase on “true” reality, the reader has to fall back on a fabrique of contrived characters whose stock emotions—Humiliation! Guilt! Terror! Lust!—slam slam slam unrelentingly through twenty-one chapters.

The pages gallop to resolution, but with no catharsis, perhaps not surprisingly, since Wolfe has never internalized his concerns. But, unlike his mordant observations on the worlds of pranksters and bankers, here, like his protagonists, they inhabit the surface; they don’t penetrate, they surf. Still, it would be heartening to have someone to root for—the Creole professor’s sweet daughter Ghislaine holds promise until her vocabulary grows shrill and pulls her, too, into swampland.

My overriding disappointment was one of expectations; that the Tom Wolfe who fueled the Kool-Aid, the Tom Wolfe who lit the flame under a bonfire of vanities, would pick himself up from the time-out of I Am Charlotte Simmons to do it again. Because Tom Wolfe does matter. His vision and his language broke through the sound barrier! But don’t worry, Little, Brown, Tom Wolfe owns a pedestal in the literary pantheon and acreage in the modern psyche that nothing can take from him. If Back To Blood is a “totem” book, the sort of publication (quoting himself, in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) that “people don’t really buy to read but just to have,” then it will sell and it should. Because it is still way cool—Kool!—to have a new Tom Wolfe on your coffee table.