From Poder Magazine, December 2012
The Immigrant's Tale
The Zola-inspired novel of the season seems equal parts probe of Homo Miamians and candy-colored word-map of Tom Wolfe’s gifted mind
By Kirk Nielsen
This fall, while nervously awaiting a review copy of Tom Wolfe’s new 704-page novel, Back to Blood, I guzzled up the documentary, "How Tom Wolfe Got Back to Blood" and was stirred by the New Journalist-cum-Great American Novelist’s dedication to field reporting. It was paramount for not getting things “wrong technically,” he explained. “I don’t want readers in Miami to go, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding?’”
With deadline looming, I noticed my November issue of Vanity Fair contained part of a Back to Blood chapter titled “The Super Bowl of the Art World.” It opens with a crowd waiting to enter a VIP preview of Art Basel. “Two hundred or so restless souls, most of them middle-aged men, eleven of whom had been pointed out to Magdalena as billionaires — billionaires — were squirming like maggots over the prospect of what lay on the other side of an inch-thick glass wall just inside a small portal, Entrance D of the Miami Convention Center....”
Oh my God. Are you kidding? Tom Wolfe believes Art Basel-goers are maggots?
But no. Wolfe is merely the psychedelic messenger. Magdalena, a 24-year-old Cuban-American nurse from Hialeah, with “perfect lissome legs and thighs and hips” and a huge student loan debt, is the one who thinks so. As a little girl she’d “come upon a little dead dog, a mutt, on a sidewalk in Hialeah” and seen a swarm of “deathly pale worms” in a cut in its haunch. The sight of the Art Basel VIPs triggers the memory. She detests these rich “americanos” as much as she seeks their status.
And so goes Magdalena, who’s never heard of Chagall, Fisher Island, or cachet, into the VIP preview with her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, a hypomanic Anglo psychiatrist in his 40s specializing in porn addiction treatment. Her status-quest also lands her in bed with Sergei Korolyov, a “gorgeous!” Russian oligarch who’s convinced the Miami Art Museum to become the Korolyov Museum of Art, in exchange for a collection of Kandinskys and Maleviches, which turn out to be fakes.
Meanwhile, she dumps her Hialeah boyfriend, Nestor Camacho, a 25-year-old muscle-bound marine patrol cop (who hardly speaks Spanish even though his parents migrated from Cuba on a raft). Camacho’s fellow exiles, even his abuelos, have condemned him for climbing the mast of a schooner full of partying “americanos” and arresting a terrified Cuban refugee perched on the crow’s nest. He’s reviled again after a raid on an Overtown crack house during which he spews bigoted vitriol—all recorded by someone’s iPhone and uploaded on YouTube. Stripped of his badge, he tries to regain his status by helping an “americano” Miami Herald reporter bust the Russian who created the bogus paintings.
Alas our reporter-novelist commits some technical inaccuracies that deserve if not an “Oh my God” then at least an “Oh dear” or two. To wit: Camacho fears state troopers might stop him for driving while using a cellphone (not illegal in Florida); Magdalena’s Drexel Avenue apartment is south of 5th Street (the real Drexel ends at 12th Street); a senior residence in “Hallandale” is halfway to the Everglades (the real town, Hallandale Beach, abuts the ocean); and more.
Lubricating these preposterous plot lines and barely believable characters are some Miami truths, though, such as: the quintessential man must 1) avoid at all costs being taken for a “pussy” and 2) hit on attractive young women at every opportunity. Wolfe’s hypomanic yet verisimilar descriptions of almost everything rarely go by without realistic glances at cleavage and glimpses of thighs wrapped by mini-skirts or very short shorts.
In the end, BTB is less a novel revealing the madness of a city embroiled in ethnic-based rivalries than a comedy applying Wolfe’s theories on status systems to Miami’s sexy backdrop. Mid-denouement, the Herald’s goofily corrupt editor-in chief, Edward Topping, worries about the integrity of an exposé the paper has published revealing Igor the forger and casting a shadow on philanthropist Korolyov. “Have we done what scientists call hopey-dopey research, in which the hope for a particular outcome skews the actual findings?” Topping wonders.
In other words, Wolfe is signaling his epistemological limits. He can’t help but skew his findings. It’s a farce after all, which means he has to be kidding.