Back to Blood: A Novel
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012
Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood is a quick read despite its 700-page length, and absorbing. Of his four novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) about race tensions in New York City is the most famous, but his second, A Man in Full (1998), is better. The novel I have not yet read is I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). After Bonfire and A Man in Full the press stopped promoting Wolfe so much, and only Bonfire has been made into a movie. The author goes against the grain of an increasingly rigid and totalitarian society.
Back to Blood is set in contemporary Miami. Wolfe says it is a novel about immigration, but it is really about its social after-effects. Although his focus is on Cubans, who dominate the city, his panoramic sweep encompasses Negroes, Russians, Jews, Haitians, and the tiny American (white) minority.
The book’s title and theme are drawn from the stream of consciousness of fictional Miami Herald editor Edward Topping:
A phrase pops into his head from out of nowhere. “Everybody . . . all of them . . . it’s back to blood! Religion is dying . . . but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom in a supercollider known as the universe.’ But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds—Back to blood!” All people, everywhere, you have no choice but—Back to blood!
Major plot threads concern the police, street crime and sophisticated upper-class organized crime, the conglomeration of disparate races and their mutual hostility, city politics, high society, art and art forgery, television news and entertainment, relationships, psychiatry, and the ubiquity of sexual license and pornography.
The entire Greater Miami area, including the local government and police force, is now run by first- and second-generation Cuban immigrants Wolfe told an interviewer:
As far as I know, it’s the only city in the world where people from another country, with another language and a totally different culture, have taken over in this way. Invasions do the same thing. Whites, or what they call “Anglos” in Miami, are down to about 10 per cent of the population now, which is a huge change. Of course, our government created this unusual situation.
Both Left and Right believe Wolfe disapproves of the change, though he praised race replacement in Miami in the final paragraphs of his essay “Pell-Mell” (The Atlantic, November 2007). “Pell-Mell” is his positive take on the alleged Jeffersonian origins of American openness.
But Wolfe really isn’t an ideologue. His orientation is and always has been fundamentally cultural and aesthetic rather than political, though in recent years he has declared himself to be a George W. Bush-style neoconservative. I think his extremely objective reportorial eye confuses people, causing them to read their own attitudes into his work. A 1971 article stated that he had no religious, political, or club affiliations, and among the authors he “reads and rereads” are Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche.
The novel’s protagonist is a young, heavily-muscled Cuban American cop named Nestor Camacho, raised in the Cuban enclave of Hialeah, characterized by block after block of small casitas (houses) with tiny, concrete-covered front yards that the women hose down on Saturdays.
And no trees.
Nestor had heard of a time when all over the country the very name Hialeah summoned up a picture of Hialeah Park, the most glamorous and socially swell racetrack in America, set in a landscaper’s dream, a lush, green, wholly man-made 250-acre park with a resident flock of pinkest flamingos . . . now a shut-down, locked-up relic, a great moldering memento of the palmy days when the Anglos ran Miami.
Another major character is Magdalena, also from Hialeah, a young Cuban American beauty who works as a nurse for celebrity psychiatrist Norman Lewis. She dumps her boyfriend Nestor for Lewis, whose specialty is treating porn addicts (in particular, a powerful but sleazy billionaire named Maurice Fleischmann), and Lewis, in turn, for handsome Russian oligarch Sergei Korolyov. Korolyov is an honored Miami citizen, art collector, “philanthropist,” and, it turns out, ruthless gangster.
Wolfe’s handling of point of view is sophisticated. Nestor and Magdalena are the two main point of view characters, with Negro Police Chief Cyrus Booker and Yale-educated Edward T. Topping IV, the WASP editor of the Miami Herald, two minor ones. One scene is shown through the eyes of Professor Lantier, a light-skinned Francophile from Haiti. When writing of Lantier’s love for his daughter, Wolfe briefly enters his consciousness: “A man’s life doesn’t begin until he has his first child. You see your soul in another person’s eyes, and you love her more than yourself, and that feeling is sublime!”
In a TV interview with Charlie Rose, Wolfe expressed pride that he had written I Am Charlotte Simmons from the female protagonist’s point of view. This wasn’t a feminist boast; he was taking credit for a technical achievement. A female reviewer of the book thought he succeeded. He might also have added the cross-generational element, since he was writing about people much younger than himself, just as he does in Back to Blood. (It is hard to believe that Tom Wolfe is 83.)
Likewise, in Blood a major portion of the narrative is told from Magdalena’s point of view. In addition, it is noteworthy that the two major characters through whose psyches Wolfe tells the story are Cuban, two others black, and only Topping, a minor character, is white.
Only once or twice does he slip. For example, Wolfe’s Cuban cop recalls the following lines spoken by an astronaut on TV, words Nestor loved “and believed in their wisdom and remembered them in every moment of police work that involved danger”:
Before every mission I told myself, “I’m gonna die doing this. I’m gonna die this time. But I’m dying for something bigger than myself. I’m about to die for my country, for my people, and for a righteous God.” I always believed—and I still believe—that there is a righteous God and that we, we in America, are part of his righteous plan for the world. And so I, who am about to die, am determined to die honorably, fearing only one thing: not living up to, not dying for, the purpose for which God put me on this earth.
Although this is an archetypal white American philosophy, it is virtually certain that nothing remotely resembling it ever passed through the mind of a Cuban American.
The nuances of race are presented less from a scientific than a cultural point of view, the way most people think about them in real life.
Lantier, the Haitian professor, is obsessed with whiteness and his remote, part-French ancestry. He harbors deep contempt for dark-skinned Creole-speaking Haitians and for American blacks. He desperately wants his beautiful daughter to “pass”:
She’s a very nice-looking young woman . . . Even as those words formed in his mind, he knew he was putting her on a second tier. She wasn’t as beautiful as a Northern European blonde, an Estonian or a Lithuanian or a Norwegian or a Russian, and she wouldn’t be mistaken for a Latin beauty, either, despite having some features in common with a Latina. (p. 183)
Blacks view Cubans as white, and resent them for it. When Miami’s black police chief, Cyrus Booker, tangles with his Cuban superiors—his superiors are all Cuban—he bitterly describes them (to himself) as “white hypocrites”: “Every Cuban in this room thought of himself as white. But that wasn’t the way real white people thought of them. To the real white boys they were all brown people, colored folks, just a shade or two lighter than he was.” (p. 425)
Nestor’s Cuban partner routinely employs racial slurs when referring to blacks, a habit that terrifies Nestor, who, like most Americans—at least white ones—rigidly polices his own thoughts, a socially-imposed Pavlovian reflex George Orwell called “crimestop.”
The two cops are officially relieved of duty after surreptitious cell phone video of them speaking and behaving in a “racist” manner during a crack house bust surfaces on YouTube and is subsequently fanned into a major controversy by the media.
Even so, Cubans deeply resent and envy “Anglos,” i.e., “white people of European ancestry.” In Miami, many Latinos are “as white as any Anglo, except for the blond hair . . . That’s what Mexicans were thinking about when they used the word gringo: the people with the blond hair.” (p. 29)
Before Magdalena becomes disenchanted with her psychiatrist boyfriend, she thinks: “God, he was good-looking! Her americano prince! Blue eyes . . . wavy brownish hair—she preferred to think of it as blond . . . tall . . . Nestor was only five-seven and bulging with muscles . . . bulging! . . . so grotesque! Norman’s hair, so thick and wavy and blond . . . blond! she insisted . . . She was living with the americano ideal!” (pp. 153-54)
When Nestor dramatically rescues a Cuban “refugee” from the tall mast of a ship, the media show up. “The photographer was a swarthy little guy . . . Nestor couldn’t tell what he was.” But the reporter “was a classic americano, tall, thin, pale” named John Smith. “How much more americano could you get?!” (p. 59)
John Smith befriends Nestor and plays a major role in the story. Despite his mild-mannered ways he is a resourceful, hard-nosed investigative reporter. Notwithstanding his youth and certain other differences, Smith the Yale graduate is obviously the fictional counterpart of the 83-year-old author, also a Yale graduate.
Nevertheless, Wolfe does not express unqualified admiration for the press. He speaks disparagingly of “the so-called media,” “about a dozen of them, dressed like the homeless but lent gravity by all the microphones and notepads in their hands and, above all, by two trucks with telescoping satellite transmitters extended a full twenty feet up in the air for live broadcast.”
There are some Jewish characters as well. The less savory are powerful billionaire porn addict Maurice Fleischmann, attorney Ira Cutler, and 60 Minutes’ obnoxious TV interviewer Ike Walsh (Mike Wallace), referred to as “The Pissing Monkey” (Chapter 5).
Fleischmann’s groin and inflamed penis are covered with herpes pustules. He masturbates to pornography and ejaculates as often as 18 times a day. (I didn’t look it up, but you can be certain Wolfe has researched it.) When he’s in public he constantly scratches his crotch surreptitiously in a futile attempt to relieve the chronic pain and itching.
Ira Cutler, the Miami Herald’s ace libel attorney, is
a well-dressed, well-fed, highly-buffed pit bull when it came to legal questions, and he loved litigation, especially in the courtroom, where he could insult people to their faces, humiliate them, break their spirits, ruin their reputations, make them cry, sob, blubber, boohoo . . . and it was all sanctioned.
Sounds like the quintessential Jew.
One suspects that in real life most of the ultra-expensive “Russian” enclaves in Miami, and the smooth, well-to-do oligarchs are Jewish, but Wolfe depicts them as ethnically Russian.
Male-female relationships in Back to Blood are of short duration and frequently interracial. Race differences take a back seat to social status and raw sexual attraction. Of course, such attitudes are now systematically imposed from above, a fact Wolfe studiously ignores. Characters move from one partner to another. “Romantic” relationships are not stable or long-lasting: “He has been seeing her, dating her, which is to say, these days, going to bed with her, and loving her with all his heart.”
When Magdalena’s Cuban roommate Amélia gets dumped by her boyfriend, she tells Magdalena, sniffling:
That’s the way Reggie put it. “I’m going to have to let you go. This just isn’t working out.” Those were his actual words. After almost two years, “this just isn’t working out.” What the hell is “this,” I’d like to know, and what is “working out” supposed to mean? He also said, “It’s not your fault. . . .” That’s what’s called a “relationship.” When I hear that stupid word, I want to stick my fingers down my throat.
Shortly afterward, Amélia has a new beau.
Wolfe also offers many common sense observations: “As has been true throughout recorded history, rare is the strong man strong enough to shrug off a woman’s tears” and “Men don’t notice a girl’s makeup until it’s missing and even then have no idea what’s missing.”
Based upon a variety of reviews of Back to Blood, I had not expected the book to be as good as it is. The raw narrative power of A Man in Full is less in evidence, except in certain scenes such as the tense, funny prologue in which Miami Herald editor Edward Topping and his wife search for a place to park at a posh night spot, or Magdalena’s public humiliation by the fifth-ranked chess player in the world, a man who eats like a pig.
However, the fact that Wolfe’s methodology faithfully documents contemporary life is in itself intrinsically compelling. He depicts aspects of the world screened off by the media, which most people therefore never see.
As in all his works, contemporary life is rendered with great granularity. The Internet, YouTube, pornography, and defriending people on Facebook are all mentioned. Nestor Camacho, who likes to play around with his iPhone rings, programs in music by Cuban, Argentinian, and black rappers and punk bands including Bulldog, Dogbite (Dog Bite?), Rabies, and Pit Bull. Grand Theft Auto and celebrities such as “Leon Decapito” (Leonardo DiCaprio) and “Kanyu Reade” (Keanu Reeves) make brief appearances.
Wolfe does the same legwork for his fiction that he does for his nonfiction. Writing in 1989 about his first novel, Bonfire, he said: “I never doubted for a moment that to write a long piece of fiction about New York City I would have to do the same sort of reporting I had done for The Right Stuff [his nonfiction account of the American space program] or Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, even though by now I had lived in New York for almost twenty years.”
The author was escorted through Little Haiti by a Haitian American anthropologist, and the city’s Irish-born police chief “took the covers off an otherwise invisible Miami.” Wolfe spent time with police officers, and was shown around the city by a Cuban-American journalist from the Miami Herald who concurrently directed and produced a documentary called Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood (2012) about how Wolfe researched the novel: it aired on PBS television and was screened in more than 40 independent theaters.
Wolfe visited a strip club (Chapter 14, “Girls with Green Tails”), an orgiastic yachting regatta where a horde of drunk, half-naked white youths dive-bombed his boat (Chapter 8, “The Columbus Day Regatta”), crack-ravaged black slums, and was present at the private pre-opening of Art Basel Miami Beach where billionaire collectors ferociously compete with one another to pay millions of dollars within minutes for objectively ludicrous and obscene works of “art” (Chapter 10, “The Super Bowl of the Art World”).
All these events and more are vividly recreated in the book.
I initially thought that privately-owned Fisher Island in Biscayne Bay, described by Wolfe, was fictional, but it, and the ferry Magdalena and Dr. Lewis take to get there, are real. So is Star Island, the ultra-exclusive man-made island in the Bay where an episode of the Jewish-produced reality TV series Masters of Disaster is filmed at the mansion of uncouth, failed hedge fund czar Boris Flebetnikov.
When her boyfriend Korolyov drives Magdalena north to the restaurant where she ends up being humiliated by chess master Zhytin in a harrowing scene, they pass through Sunny Isles: “We’ve just entered Russia.” The restaurant is still further north . . . Hollywood, Hallandale: “the Russian heartland.”
The restaurant scene (Chapter 16, “Humiliation One”) is extremely well-written and conveys withering contempt for psychiatrists. Zhytin dissects the species into two categories, “logotherapists” (talk therapists) and “pill therapists” (biological psychiatrists). In 1997, while writing A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe suffered clinical depression after undergoing a quintuple heart bypass. An intensely private man, he consulted a psychiatrist at that time.
Even in Wolfe’s watered-down version, the “Russian heartland” isn’t entirely Russian. Korolyov’s art forger, Igor Drukovich, maintains a secret studio inside an “active adults” Jewish retirement center in Hallandale, where the residents are all from New York City and Long Island (Chapter 15, “The Yentas”).
The entire art-related subplot provides Wolfe with a superb opportunity to report on and express his jaundiced view of the farcical nature of contemporary art and art economics. As in many of his past works he speaks scathingly of the American elite’s nostalgie de la boue—“nostalgia for the mud.”
The architecture of Miami’s City Hall, a former Pan American Airways building, is also described in detail.
A reviewer of Charlotte Simmons noted that
Most authors write about one person again and again: themselves. . . . Yet it is a particularly rare achievement when an author can imaginatively empathize with as vast an array of contrary personalities as we encounter in Wolfe’s work. Wolfe . . . clearly does not stay indoors. He walks his white suit into the dark corners of American social, sexual, and criminal life and returns with an intuitive, empirical, and arresting grasp of his fellow citizens.
Wolfe has spoken of the writer’s “damnable problem of material.” Brute reality necessitates personal observation, research, and reporting as the foundation for fiction. Emerson said that every individual has a great autobiography to write—but he didn’t say they had two. “Write about what you know” can take you only so far: “[L]iterary genius in prose,” Wolfe maintains, “consists of . . . 65 percent material and 35 percent the talent in the sacred crucible.” He explains his view, and his conviction that novelists should employ the literary techniques developed by European authors from the 18th century through 1946 to write about real life, in his seminal essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel” (Harper’s, November 1989), written shortly after the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
It is this richly factual reportorial foundation, combined with Wolfe’s flamboyant, utterly unique talent to exploit it, that makes Back to Blood and his other works, fiction and nonfiction, so informative and absorbing to read.
A comparative absence of Political Correctness doesn’t hurt either.