Wolfe has argued that modern American fiction has fallen into sterility and irrelevance because novelists aren’t looking at the world. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler.
Tom Wolfe writes Big and Tall Prose—big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration. No one of average size emerges from his shop; in fact, no real human variety can be found in his fiction, because everyone has the same enormous excitability. So his new novel, “Back to Blood” (Little, Brown), is supposedly about Miami. But it is about Miami not as, say, “Dead Souls” is about Russia or “Seize the Day” is about New York but more as heavy metal is about noise: not a description of the property but a condition of its excess. If it is about Miami, then “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” were also about Miami, not about New York and Atlanta, respectively. The content and the style haven’t changed much since “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was published, in 1987: select your city; presume it to be a site of simmering racial and ethnic civil war, always a headline away from a riot; throw a sensational news story into the fire; and watch the various interest groups immolate themselves.
The phrase “back to blood” is not new in Wolfe’s work, either. It is characteristic shorthand for his conservative paranoia, and occurs early in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” The white mayor of New York is heckled by an angry crowd in Harlem. “Hymie!” and “Goldberg!” are tossed at him. He catches the eye of a sympathetic African-American woman, whose look seems to say, “What can I do?” The mayor tells himself, “They’ll go after black people like her next. They’ll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!” Surveying the mayhem, the mayor imagines a soliloquy, a Wolfean trumpet blast: “Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontier, you gutless wonders!” The passage masquerades as good literary incitement, and was touted as such by Wolfe in his manifesto in defense of reportorial realism, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” (1989). The real writer, it is understood, must leave the enervating study and the filtered formalisms of postmodern prose, go out and hit the sidewalks (where the exclamation marks cluster in giant, swaying crowds!), and register the teeming ideological and racial realities. It is the only way to “know what truly presses upon the heart of the individual, white or nonwhite, living in the metropolis in the last decade of the twentieth century.”
But what if the writer is incapable of intelligently analyzing these complex realities, and merely exploits them for sensation; if the writer replicates the same explosive “Third World” combustibility in book after book; if the writer cannot possibly press upon “the heart of the individual” because he takes the same raging pulse in all his characters? In that case, this martial cry may look less like a call to arms than like a call to alarm, an unconscious peal of fear. Sure enough, Miami is identically “back to blood” in “Back to Blood.”
The book opens with a small racial “incident”—not big enough to constitute the Big Crisis Story that Wolfe needs to get things going, but revealing nonetheless. The editor of the Miami Herald, Edward T. Topping IV, is being driven by his wife to a fancy restaurant. Topping is as Wasp as they come: “On paper, Ed was an ideal-typical member of the breed himself. Hotchkiss, Yale . . . tall, six-three, slender in a gangly way.” En route, Topping, a transplant from Chicago, conveniently reprises what he knows about Miami’s bewildering tensions:
Cuban mayor, Cuban department heads, Cuban cops, Cuban cops, and more Cuban cops, 60 percent of the force Cubans plus 10 percent other Latins, 18 percent American blacks, and only 12 percent Anglos? . . . And were the Cubans and other Latins so dominant that theHerald had to create an entirely separate Spanish edition,El Nuevo Herald? . . . And did the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky, they had materialized so suddenly, for the sole purpose of pushing black people around? . . . And had Haitians been pouring into Miami by the untold tens of thousands, resenting the fact that the American government legalized illegal Cuban immigrants in a snap of the fingers but wouldn’t give Haitians a break? . . . and now Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Russians, Israelis.
After some difficulty, Edward Topping and his wife find a parking spot, only to have it nicked by a rich Latin woman in a Ferrari. Topping’s Anglo wife and the Ferrari driver get into a shouting match, one cursing in English, the other in Spanish: back to blood!
The important word in Wolfe’s familiar list of warring ethnicities and nationalisms is that recurring “resent”/ “resenting.” Without this preëxisting condition, Wolfe cannot play doctor. The character who inflames resentment in “Back to Blood” is Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American police officer currently working on Marine Patrol. (Nestor was one of the Argonauts, and Camacho is . . . macho.) We first encounter Nestor while he’s on patrol with two other officers, McCorkle (“sandy-colored hair and blue eyes”) and Kite (“blondish-brown hair and blue eyes”). They are smacking along the Miami waters, in irritatingly bouncy onomatopoeic prose:
SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down againSMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACKbounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence on the roof SMACK but Officer Nestor Camacho’s fellowSMACK cops here in the cockpit the two fat SMACK americanos they love this stuff love it love driving the boat SMACK throttle wide open forty-five miles an hour against the wind SMACK bouncing bouncing its shallow aluminum hull SMACK from swell SMACK to swellSMACK to swell SMACK toward the mouth of Biscayne Bay.
Sergeant McCorkle angers Nestor by pronouncing his name “Nes-ter, the way americanos pronounced it,” and by assuming that he is expert in matters Cuban. (The blood is simmering!) The patrol gets word of a disturbance on a tall ship: a man has climbed to the top of a seventy-foot mast and refuses to come down. A crowd has gathered on a nearby bridge to gawp and yell. (The blood is simmering!) The police radio tells the officers that the man claims to be an anti-Castro dissident, and that the Cubans on the bridge are demanding asylum for this almost-immigrant. (The blood is really simmering!) Nestor, who works out at a local gym by climbing ropes, agrees to pull himself to the top of the mast and bring the man down. He does so, spectacularly—by wrapping his legs around the Cuban and effectively carrying him down the mast. The two men fall into the water, and briefly struggle—with each other and with Wolfe’s pumped-up prose:
They’re under water—and it’s just as Lonnie Kite said! The little maniac has broken free of the leg lock and is . . .attacking him! kicking him! pulling his hair!craaaaacking his nose with his forearm. . . . Kite had it right! Nestor wards off the little man’s increasingly feeble blows, moves in, clamps him in a police neck lock, and that does it! The little creature goes limp! Done for! Ultimate Fighting under water!
What seems unalloyed triumph quickly turns to disaster. A reporter for the Miami Herald named John Smith (“He was a classic americano, tall, thin, pale, wearing a navy blazer, a light-blue button-down shirt, khaki pants with freshly pressed creases down the front”) writes an adulatory story, complete with a photograph of a shirtless Nestor (“a veritable male nude in chiaroscuro, school of Michelangelo”; “an entire mountainscape of muscles, huge boulders, sharp cliffs, deep cuts, and iron gorges . . . an entire muscle terrain”). But Nestor’s own community turns against him. By arresting the man on the mast before he could set foot on American soil, Nestor has deprived a proud anti-Castro of his right to immigrate; the dissident will probably be deported. Even Nestor’s father shuns him. Magdalena, his hot girlfriend, dumps him (though for her own, non-political reasons). Nestor is an outcast. Only the americanos have any time for him. (The blood has boiled!)
Wolfe uses Nestor and John Smith, the Yale-educated Herald reporter, to finger every racial sore point in the city. First, Nestor sets off the Cubans, as we’ve seen. The Cuban-American mayor gets involved, and leans on the African-American police chief to get Camacho moved off Marine Patrol and parked somewhere obscure. Nestor gets transferred to the Crime Suppression Unit, where a drug bust swiftly becomes a second racial “incident.” He wrestles a huge African-American drug dealer to the ground. More steroidal prose:
Ride that sonofabitch until he can’t move anymore! . . . Force the bastard’s head and neck down until he wants to beg for mercy. . . . The giant can’t stand the pain . . .Unnnnggggghhhheeeee! . . . Unnnnnngggggghhhhhheeeeeee! . . . They’re both keeling over. . . . Nestor uses his leg lock to torque the giant’s body.
Nestor and a colleague yell obscenities at the drug dealer, and are filmed doing so. The clip goes viral on YouTube, and, once again, the mayor calls in the police chief. Another day, another incident: after the Cubans and the African-Americans come the Haitians and the Russians. Nestor gets involved with Ghislaine Lantier, a beautiful Haitian-American of French origin, whose teen-age brother is hanging out with a Haitian school gang. Ghislaine asks Nestor for his help in solving a crisis at the school, in which a member of the gang knocked down a teacher, Mr. Estevez. Although he has now been suspended from the force, Nestor sorts things out. Later in the book, he and Smith expose a Russian oligarch, Sergei Korolyov, who has given the Miami Art Museum seventy million dollars’ worth of paintings by the likes of Malevich and Kandinsky. The paintings, it turns out, were forgeries. Nestor’s reputation is thereby restored.
I have no idea what Nestor Camacho is actually like, no sense of his true desires and anxieties, and my ignorance is entirely unaffected by exposure to the seven hundred or so pages of Wolfe’s novel, because Nestor, like everyone else in the book, is simply a blaring Klaxon for Wolfe’s excitability. In the regime of the enforced exclamation mark, everyone is equal. (There are seventy-seven exclamation marks in the novel’s twenty-page prologue.) Wolfe has written much of the novel in free-indirect style (or close third person), traditionally a method that opens up the interiority of the character it ventriloquizes. But the characters in “Back to Blood” have identically voiced interiors, so that all one hears, again and again, is Wolfe’s big-circus broadcast. Here is Nestor, thinking about his muscles:
Today he was still five-seven, but . . . in the mirror . . . five feet and seven inches’ worth of big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads—dense!—and you want to know what was even better for the upper body than weights? Climbing the fifty-five-foot-high rope at Rodriguez’s “Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!,” as everybody called it, without using your legs. You wantdense biceps and lats—and even pecs? Nothing like climbing that fifty-five-foot-high rope at Rodriguez’s—dense!—and defined by the deep dark crevasses each mass of muscle dropped off into at the edges . . . in the mirror. . . . If you were truly cool and Cuban, you had the seat of the uniform trousers taken in—a lot—until from behind you looked like a man wearing a pair of Speedos with long pants legs. That way, you were suave in the eyes of every jebita on the street. That was exactly the way he had met Magdalena—Magdalena!
And here is Magdalena, watching her new boyfriend, Dr. Norman Lewis, a famous psychiatrist, who treats sex addiction, and comparing him with Nestor, her old boyfriend:
At that moment Norman emerged from his office, beaming, gleaming with enthusiasm. God, he was good-looking! Her americano prince! . . . Her friends were forever clucking and fuming and warning her that he was almost twice her age . . . but they had no conception of Norman’s vigor and strength and joy of living. When the two of them got up in the morning, both of them naked—she had never slept that way with anybody before—she could tell that underneath the good healthy . . . padding . . . he had a really good build. . . . Nestor was only five-seven and bulging with muscles here there everywhere . . . bulging! . . . so grotesque! . . . Norman’s hair, so thick and wavy and blond . . . blond! . . . made all that “jacked,” “ripped” stuff Nestor talked about irrelevant. She was living with the americano ideal!
And here is the black police chief, exulting, like Nestor, in his massiveness:
Like many men in their mid-forties, he wanted to look young, athletic, virile . . . and so he sprang, imagining himself a lion or a tiger or a panther . . . a vision of lithe strength, in any case. What a sight it was! Or so he was convinced . . . he couldn’t very well ask anybody, could he? . . . On each side of his neck, which he figured looked thick as a tree trunk, a row of four gold stars ran along each side of his navy blue collar . . . a galaxy of eight stars in all . . . and atop that starry tree trunk was his . . . dark face. . . . Oh yeah, how they stared, all those people going in and out of City Hall—and he loved it!
Of course, these characters have functionally or strategically distinct “thoughts,” as befits their roles. Magdalena thinks of her new lover, the police chief of his medals. But their voices have the same spoiled music (the leaning italics, the serried exclamation points, the bug-eyed rhetorical questions). They are extrovert histrionics posing as singular reckonings. They bespeak no particularity, and thus hold no interest. The reader gets skillful at speed-reading these identical scrolls of bombast, accelerating through their falsities and imprecisions, keen for the noisy lies to end so that the slightly quieter dubieties of the plot might surface.
Over the years, Tom Wolfe has campaigned strenuously on behalf of the journalistic role in fiction. In “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” and elsewhere, he has argued that American fiction since the nineteen-sixties has fallen into sterility and irrelevance, because American novelists aren’t looking at the world. According to him, they’ve retreated from the traditional calling of writers like Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis, because they’ve exchanged the labor of reporting for easy fictional games (postmodern self-referentiality) or for a few dull inches of ivory (minimalism, dirty realism). The American novel will be reborn, Wolfe claims, when the novelist gets out onto the street and starts copying. Not only will such reporting produce the little details, “the petits faits vrais that create verisimilitude”; it is essential for literature’s greatest effects. American fiction, grounded in “a highly detailed realism,” will properly emulate the Zola who went down into the mines in Anzin, in 1884, to do research. While underground, Wolfe says, Zola discovered that the pit horses lived and died in situ; when he transfers this found detail to the pages of his novel “Germinal,” the reader is moved and aghast.
Wolfe’s claims about American fiction since 1960 seem manifestly untrue, and more untrue by the day. American fiction is dominated by realism; there is, if anything, too much of it, and not enough careful artifice, not enough pressure at the level of form and sentence. The billion-footed beast is not “reality,” as Wolfe would have it, but the thick-backed social-realist novel, which lurks in its Brooklyn or Berkeley cave, ready to lumber forth at any moment and chew up acres of reviewers’ real estate. Yet Wolfe’s premises matter more than the accuracy of his prognosis. His argument presumes that reality is always more significant than anything the novelist can invent; he credits the finality of the real above the debatability of the real. Of course, many novelists have done research, or have simply slipped chunks of witnessed or remembered reality into their books. But often their swerves away from research are more interesting than their fidelities (as is the case in the gap between Thomas Mann’s extraordinary allegory of the sanatorium, in “The Magic Mountain,” and the stolid research he did, which involved visiting the sanatorium where his wife was staying).
Wolfe is not wrong about those horses in Zola, and his hunger for reality honors the central, and richest, emphasis of the novel form. But he fails the demands of his own manifesto in at least two respects. His fiction reproduces not the real but “realism”—narrative as a set of contrivances and conventions, a style that, in fact, gets in the way of the real. Second, his almost religious belief that the novelist’s imagination can never rival reality’s force results in weak fiction and forceful facts. His books suffer from what he defines, in “Back to Blood,” as “information compulsion—the compulsion to impress people with information you have and they would love to have but don’t.” What is disclosed about Edward Topping IV by “Hotchkiss, Yale . . . six-three,” or about John Smith by “a classic americano, tall, thin, pale, wearing a navy blazer”? It’s admirable that Wolfe wants to get as much of contemporary Miami into his book as possible, but the quality of the conduit is of greater concern than the quantity of the supply: it is useless to feature Russians in your novel, just because they exist in Miami, if this is how you render their speech: “You vant to share zees studio?—eet’s yours, my fren! . . . Ze graphic art ees now not good, and I haf to share thees studio.”
The important details, the ones that make fiction’s intimate palpability, cannot simply be scooped up off the sidewalk. Tolstoy, praised as a realist by Tom Wolfe, took the germ of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” from an actual story about a judge in a nearby town who had died of cancer; but one of the most beautiful moments in the novella surely came from Tolstoy’s imagination—or, rather, from his patient loyalty to Ivan’s invented reality. I mean the moment when Ivan Ilyich, lying on his couch, in great distress and loneliness, remembers “the raw and wrinkly French prunes of his childhood, their special taste, and how his mouth watered when he got down to the stone.”
Very occasionally in this novel, Wolfe gives evidence that he knows the difference between those French prunes and “Hotchkiss, Yale . . . six-three.” At one point, Nestor, fleeing the opprobrium of his community, ends up at a favorite Cuban bakery, where he enjoys “a whiff of Ricky’s pastelitos, ‘little pies’ of filo dough wrapped around ground beef, spiced ham, guava, or you name it. . . . He had loved pastelitos since he was a little boy.” It’s a rare passage without exclamation marks, and superficially it resembles Ivan and the prunes. But the detail about the pastelitos has the whiff not of pastry but of research. Like everything else in this book, it is imparted information, and is thus the expected detail, the properly stamped sociological receipt. Ivan’s French prunes come out of nowhere, and surprise us with their singular surplus: Why prunes? Why French prunes?
A world in which no one is ever quiet is a false one; it is a stage, not a world. Miami is a big, noisy, crazy, spectatorial space, for sure; but “Back to Blood” merely confirms what we already thought we knew about that city, and fails to dramatize ordinary people within that space. So it founders both as fiction and as reportage, as the reader can test, by comparing this brassy yeller with quieter but far better novels that have drawn on intelligent research (like “Netherland” and “Lush Life,” both set in New York), or with formidable works of courageous reportage (like “Maximum City” and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” both about life in Mumbai). Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude. This is perhaps why he is obsessively drawn to describing enormous male physiques, which are analogues for his own exaggeration. In “Back to Blood,” we have not only the massive musclescapes of Nestor and the police chief but also those of Mr. Estevez, the teacher (“His chest bulged out against a white shirt”), and the gigantic black drug dealer, and various outsized Russians, including Sergei Korolyov (“His big powerful blood-gorged neck was shrinking . . . likewise his marvelous sculpted chest”).
These giant physiques are seen by Wolfe with a combination of revulsion and admiration, a combination that characterizes his prose in general. Too often, one senses that what Wolfe imagines to be an irreverent critique of strength is actually a reverent reproduction of the same. His own writing lusts for the power he so noisily depicts. The novelist issues his status reports—on the latest cool restaurant, or the state of the gym-toned body, or the enormous mansions on Fisher Island, or the spending habits of the new Russians—in a register that is at once breathlessly mocking and breathlessly awed. Here is Ghislaine’s father, the refined Professor Lantier, who is obsessed with his Frenchness (as a way of distinguishing himself from his Haitian origins), reflecting on the quality of his Art Deco house:
Lantier’s desk was a four-foot-wide window in the form of a pair of . . . French . . . doors that swept all the way from the floor to the ceiling cornice ten feet above. . . . Instead of comprising fussy amalgamations of Vitruvian scrolls, rolls, fillets, and billets that spelled elegance in nineteenth-century haut bourgeois design, Art Decohaute bourgeoiseelegance substituted the grand gesture: windows as tall as the wall . . . smooth massive cornices that cried out the Art Deco motto “Elegance through Streamlined Strength!” . . . This house wasn’t very big or grand in any other way. But it was Art Deco! . . . a genuine Art Deco house from the 1920s!—one of a number built back then in this northeastern section of Miami known as the Upper East Side. . . . These Art Deco houses were considered rather special, Art Deco being English shorthand for Arts Décoratifs, the first form of Modern architecture—and it was French! He knew paying for it would be a stretch—a $540,000 stretch—but it wasFrench!—and very stylishly so.
Here we are again with the beseeching italics, the sickly repetitions, the glaring capitals, the blurting, Tourette’s-like exclamations. In passages like this, Wolfe seems almost to hide his own respect for status behind the obviously exaggerated respect of his characters. Or, rather, since no one actually thinks in this loudly obvious way, since the words on the page fail to disclose an actual human being, they point back, uneasily, to the failed ventriloquist: Who thinks like this? Professor Lantier, or Tom Wolfe? All one can say for sure is that Wolfe writes like this. It’s not that the reader imagines that the novelist wants exactly the same things as his characters, (“power, money, fame, and beautiful lovers,” as Edward Topping defines the prizes of the strong); it’s that Wolfe’s prose performs like the people it depicts, and is thus inseparable from them. Revelling in its own grossly muscular power, its own cheap riches, it is a ceaseless display of Unstreamlined Strength.