The first person thanked in the acknowledgments of Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood (Little, Brown and Company, 720 pp., $30), a doorstop set in Miami, is that city’s former mayor, Manny Diaz. The second is the former police chief. There are also “Miami’s maker of yachts that look like X-15s and don’t so much sail as lift off” and the “developers and engines of the Wynwood art district, Miami’s equivalent of New York’s Chelsea.” The book hasn’t yet begun, and already the reader has been plunged into a sea of boldface names.
The only subject Tom Wolfe has ever been interested in is status. Even as a writer of nonfiction: his 1965 piece about The New Yorker was obsessed with staff writers’ relative proximity to editor William Shawn; his profile of Phil Spector, from 1964, is more explicit: “Status!” he writes. “What is his status?” And his much-discussed essay from 2000 on John Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike, his literary contemporaries, drives the obsession home: “On second thought, I have to mention that cover of Time,” he writes about his own public image. “[T]here I was, not only on the cover, but on the cover wearing a white double-breasted suit and vest and a white homburg …” He goes on.
The Time cover, from 1998, was to promote the second of his four novels, A Man in Full. As a writer of fiction, Mr. Wolfe is notable for both his neck-vein-bursting enthusiasm and his on-the-scene reporting, traveling to whatever American milieu has captured his fancy that year. But the method by which he obtains information is governed by the sort of access available only to a man who appears on the cover of Time in a double-breasted white suit. The sort of access Mr. Wolfe was afforded in researching Back to Blood, in the company of Miami’s brightest stars and biggest civic boosters, becomes clear early on in the novel. Every piece of information he’s gleaned in Miami, in New York (the subject of The Bonfire of the Vanities), in Atlanta (A Man in Full) and on a college campus in Pennsylvania (I Am Charlotte Simmons), has been in service of the self-evident thesis that in America, status is important.
In his vaunted hyperbolic style, Mr. Wolfe blows up details of consumption and lards each one with an exclamation point; a pixelated focus on the trappings of wealth serves as a stand-in for character development. He is either an author obsessed with exposing radical truths about American materialism or an author whose sympathies lie with those who have power, those he sets out to critique. Anyway, they’re more fun to write about.
In Back to Blood, plot is second to style. That said, the novel is technically about the divergent paths of Nestor Camacho and Magdalena Otero, a former couple, both distanced from their roots, who find themselves implicated in an art-forgery scheme. Nestor, a disgraced cop taken off his beat, is a vigilante of sorts; Magdalena, a nurse with a side job in seduction, finds herself dating an art patron, then a more prominent art patron.
But neither character’s actions are in service of the plot, which is diluted by lengthy descriptions of the Magic City’s fine restaurants and art galleries. In spite of the presence of Hollywood stars “Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade” (yikes), the white people buttering each other up at Art Basel are more authentic than any other characters in the book. “You’re not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying,” says one art patroness. “You may be great. You may be iconic, the way Cy Twombly is, but you’re not cutting-edge.” Indeed. Meanwhile, Magdalena, squired on a man’s arm, thinks little of this. “What did iconic mean? She hadn’t the faintest idea.”
Art Basel comes midway through the book, but this tone is set much earlier. Back to Blood kicks things off with a prologue entitled “We een Mee-AH-mee Now,” a pidgin rendering of the manner in which a wealthy Latina in a Ferrari (surprised? Mr. Wolfe is!) tells off the wife of Edward T. Topping IV, the editor of the Miami Herald. “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to the maximum, to the point of satire,” we’re told, though the satire never arrives (unless employing “Hotchkiss, Yale” as a descriptor counts as satire—which, to the Yale-educated Mr. Wolfe, it may indeed).
Topping appears in the book only briefly, but his prejudices are the author’s. By page seven, Topping is thinking to himself, “Oh, ineffable Latin dirty girls!” As smut talk, this is less imaginative than the inventively revolting descriptions of sex in I Am Charlotte Simmons, but conveying the desires of a golden-years WASP may be easier for Mr. Wolfe than doing the same for a young co-ed. Aside from the woman in the fancy car in the Mee-AH-mee parking lot, the only Latina given weight in the book is Magdalena, a beauty who flits from one man to another, whose employment as a psychiatric nurse is complicated not merely by the fact that she’s sleeping with her boss but also by the fact that she is flummoxed by any mention of talk therapy or psychiatric drugs.
The white characters in Back to Blood are granted, in even the briefest appearances, the opportunity to distinguish themselves through ambition or cunning or incisive thinking; the Latinos are important because they are Latino. The book’s title, for instance, comes from Topping’s epiphany, in the prologue, that America is re-segregating. “‘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!”
Mr. Wolfe does not attempt to make this an argument, to support the claim that “all people everywhere” are seeking to reify divisions between the races. Tellingly, he doesn’t bother to show the evolution of Topping’s thoughts; before his wife and the stranger in the sports car get in a fight, Topping is lusting for the forbidden Latina, “the tumescence men live for welling up beneath his Jockey tighty-whiteys” while contemplating “dirty girls” and his C.V. The thought of renewed segregation “pops into [Topping’s] head from out of nowhere.” It’s so important to the author that he express his particular thoughts on status in 2012—that it’s predicated on race, that white men ought to marvel fearfully at the manner in which Latinos show solidarity to one another even as the same white men exclusively view other races as sex objects or threats—it doesn’t matter if he’s using his characters as accidental prophets.
At least Topping gets to have thoughts. Mr. Wolfe doesn’t deign to expend the same attention on the book’s ostensible main character, Nestor, the cop. He is little more than a body that can be dispatched to accomplish feats of strength. Though he’s the engine that moves the plot forward, Nestor is only sporadically aware of the dynamics of power swirling around him: he’s the tool of a white journalist, just as Magdalena is arm candy for a parade of white boyfriends. Their trajectories—one ultimately happy and one sad—are a matter of chance and accidents. A Latino police officer and a Latina medical professional are, in Tom Wolfe’s Miami, disempowered due entirely to their weak minds and indecisiveness; while this reader hasn’t met many Miami cops or nurses, Nestor and Magdalena’s dim wits seem, at best, an ungenerous sampling of the least flattering of human traits. To have them as the two representatives of Latin-American culture here suggests that whatever Mr. Wolfe saw in Miami, he didn’t like.
Mr. Wolfe describes Nestor’s physique as one might a rock formation: “an entire mountainscape of muscles, huge boulders, sharp cliffs, deep cuts, and iron gorges … an entire muscle terrain … ME!” he writes from inside Nestor’s muscle-bloated skull. The character’s thoughts are almost parodically simple. “He asked himself, ‘Do I exist?’” While Topping’s unbidden thought resulted in a passable American Studies term paper topic, Nestor’s inner life is unworthy of the level of close examination his dark foreign body demands.
Nestor sets the plot into motion when he climbs a ship’s mast to stop the attempted emigration of a Cuban refugee. He reacts with astonishment to his Cuban family’s anger at this (“Nestor was bewildered … couldn’t get a word out … just stood there with his mouth open. His mother was looking at him in a way she had never looked at him in his whole life! Even Mami!”) and subsequently doubts his own existence. He’s attracted to a Haitian Creole woman whose younger brother is in legal peril, but Nestor is essentially a prude. When a group of women whose jeans “hugged their declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice, explored every hill and dale of their lower abdomens, climbed their montes veneris,” he looks away, leaving the author to salivate alone.
Elsewhere, Magdalena (herself possessed, we are told, of a conventionally attractive form) finds herself ignored at an art opening and, through Mr. Wolfe’s narration, expresses the exact same reductive existentialism as Nestor: “A little Cuban girl named Magdalena no longer existed, did she.” Both moments of dwindling personal worth come as the characters deal with their estrangement from their families, from La Raza: They need their blood to exist.
The vacuity with which Nestor and Magdalena question whether or not they exist without ties to their community is insulting. Neither asks what their disavowal of their parents really means. The two characters are asking whether their lives have meaning divorced from their race, when Mr. Wolfe has given the reader no reason to believe that they have ever engaged with the world around them or had a meaningful thought. The question is the answer. They do not, in fact, exist.
Past novels by Mr. Wolfe edged toward a hard, dark border between that which is tacitly acknowledged as acceptable talk for the private club and that which cannot be said anywhere. While Sherman McCoy, protagonist of the quasi-journalistic Bonfire of the Vanities, was satirized for his materialism and infidelity, a character based on Rev. Al Sharpton was portrayed brutally as a corrupt media manipulator. A Man in Full hinged on the rape allegations against the inarticulate and cruel black football star Fareek Fanon. “Fareek,” as in “freak”; “Fanon,” like the author of The Wretched of the Earth. If status intrigues Mr. Wolfe, it may be because he’s a Yale man with money. These poor benighted Miami types! On the rare occasion that Mr. Wolfe finds something to criticize in a character with status, Magdalena or Nestor is there to do something dumber to provide comic relief. An orgiastic art party provides Mr. Wolfe the chance to document bloated late-stage capitalism at work, but more especially the opportunity to spotlight Magdalena’s vapidity. “She had never even heard of Miami Basel until Maurice invited her,” we’re told, a page before Mr. Wolfe slips in a long paragraph about architecture and hotel life and “status” for the lucky ones who are already in the know: “The Random was a typical hotel of the much-touted South Beach Retro boom. A clever developer like Duroy would buy a small, crabbed hotel, eighty years old or more …”
Magdalena can never hope to know about any of this, nor, in any of her dealings with wealthy art patrons, does she attempt to learn. And she’s as adrift in Miami as the black athletes surrounded by white hegemony in A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons; mute even in her private thoughts, uncomprehending, suffering for unnamed sins. Whatever she believes—we’re not privy—the novel ensures that the world of ideas and of power dynamics, the only world in which Tom Wolfe feels comfortable, is one to which she is not admitted. Back to blood? Among the many things Mr. Wolfe fails to give his readers is any indication that he, for his part, ever left it.