Monday, December 31, 2012

Tom Wolfe at His Best - Review of "Back to Blood"

In much the same way that he dissected - or vivisected - the various strata of Atlanta society in "A Man in Full," with this latest novel, Tom Wolfe has turned his rapier wit on Miami and its wide variety of sub-cultures.  Within the pages of "Back to Blood," the Haitians, Cubans, Russians, Jews from New York and Anglos who inhabit the melting pot of South Florida refuse to melt and mingle into any kind of a homogeneous whole.  They bump up against one another in intriguing ways that make for a great novel.  I will let the author lay it out for you in this excerpt which involves the Cuban-American Mayor of Miami educating the African-American Chief of Police after a racial crisis had erupted.  The precipitating incident involved two cops of Cuban heritage who were caught on an iPhone video raining racial epithets on the head of a prostrate African-American crack dealer who had tried to strangle one of the officers during a raid at a crack house.

"At this point, the Mayor's expression and his tone turned fatherly, 'Cy, I want to tell you a couple of things about this city.  These are things you probably already know, but sometimes it helps to hear them out loud.  I know it helps me... 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. . . and that's a hell of a thing, when you think about it.  So what does that give you?  It gives you - I was talking to a woman about this the other day,a Haitian lady, and she says tome, "Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all.  In Miami, everybody hates everybody."

. . . But we can't leave it at that.  We have a responsibility, you and me.  We got to make Miami - not a melting pot, because that's not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes.  We can't melt 'em down, but we can weld 'em down.. . What do I mean by that?  I mean we can't mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they're all on the same level plane.'"  (Page 424).

And it is Wolfe's stylistic description of this process of welding the groups down that makes his latest work of fiction such an enjoyable literary journey.  He weaves together characters and threads that refuse to cleanly assimilate with one another.

  • A shameless social climbing Anglo schlock psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Lewis, who is trying to become the next Dr. Phil as a subject matter expert on pornography addition.
  • His Cuban psychiatrist nurse, Magdalena, who is also his lover and co-conspirator.
  • Nestor Camacho, a Cuban cop who cannot help himself from alienating both the Cuban and African-American communities with his super-hero exploits that somehow always end upon the front page of the Miami Herald.
  • Edward T. Topping IV, Yale educated WASP who is the new editor in chief of the Miami Herald.
  • John Smith, Topping's overzealous cub reporter, also WASP and Yale educated, who is eager to expose a scandal of forgery at Miami's new art museum.
  • Sergei Korolyov, Russian oligarch and benefactor who donated $70 Million worth of modern art - forged - to make Miami's art museum a destination.
  • Professor Lantier, light-skinned Haitian academic who desperately wants his even-more-fair-complexioned daughter, Ghislaine, to be able to pass as white and French, rather than Haitian.
Throw in a few more Russian oligarchs, a billionaire or two addicted to porn and strip clubs, the crew of a reality TV show, and a rich and colorful  palette of assorted secondary characters, and you have a motley crew that Wolfe can pillory and satirize in his role as an equal opportunity cynic.  No one escapes his acerbic wit.

Wolfe's worldview, baked in the Miami sun, is a dark and pessimistic Weltanschauung.  We are all, in some way - like the faked paintings that Korolyov donated to the museum - forged imitations of the masterpieces that we would aspire to be as human beings.  At 700 pages, this is a hefty tome.  Ironically, I wanted more.  I did not want the story to end, since there were so many things I wondered about how the lives of the characters would turn out.  That tells me that Wolfe has created three-dimensional individuals whose fate I cared about.  This is not an  easy task to accomplish in a satirical piece, but Wolfe pulled it off.



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