It’s been almost 25 years since Tom Wolfe issued a call for “the new social novel.” His 1989 manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” argued that, since the end of the Second World War, American novelists had lost their way, having convinced themselves that the high calling of Art required “highly refined forms of fiction” designed to appeal to an ever-narrowing band of sophisticated readers.
Some sought critical approval by offering up strenuously clever “fictions” based on the theory that the novel was “first and foremost a literary game.” For them, realism was passé, a method for middlebrows like John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw. As the once-faddish John Hawkes declared: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme.” Others did write about real situations, but only “very tiny ones, tiny domestic ones, for the most part, usually in lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings,” claimed Wolfe. These novelists, the so-called Minimalists, specialized “in a deadpan prose composed of disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”
Wolfe insisted, instead, that the new American novel should be old again. His models were Balzac and Zola, Dickens and Thackeray. He praised Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and other American realists who were not only eager to tackle big themes in a spirited way but who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience
and head out into society as a reporter.” And, of course, Wolfe set out to practice what he preached, publishing three hefty bestsellers—The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons—that aimed to “take real life and spread it across the pages of a book.”
Set in Miami, Back to Blood continues his commitment to research techniques “as thorough as Zola’s.” The acknowledgments page lists journalists, teachers, and painters, as well as a neurosurgeon, a social geographer, and “the great Haitian social anthropologist Louis Herns Marcelin.” Wolfe also thanks the city’s former police chief, John Timoney, for taking “the covers off an otherwise invisible Miami.”
Nestor Camacho, the main character in Back to Blood, is himself a cop looking for a chance to boost his career. In the opening chapter, Nestor dramatically retrieves a panicked Cuban defector who has scrambled up the towering mast of a schooner filled with revelers in Biscayne Bay. The rescue is widely publicized and, initially at least, Nestor basks in his new status as a “high--wattage hero.” But his bravery plays less well in nearby Hialeah, where many Cuban Americans (including Nestor’s family) have come to reside. The defector, they know, never reached dry land. And under federal law he must be hauled back to Cuba, where prison awaits. Nestor’s own parents fled Castro in a crude dinghy, risking sunstroke and starvation along the way. Thus, Nestor, his father tells him, has sullied the honor of the entire Camacho family.
Nestor has other problems. His girlfriend, Magdalena, dumps him for a more prosperous Americano, a psychiatrist named Norman Lewis whose specialty, pornography addiction, is now much in demand, and who is as erratic and sex-obsessed as any of his patients. But Magdalena is beautiful and naïve and yearns for the sort of glamour that one finds in South Beach, not among the tidy casitas of Hialeah.
In one of this novel’s most memorable (and representative) episodes, Lewis takes a reluctant Magdalena to the infamous bacchanal that always springs up in waters close to the Columbus Day Regatta, held annually along the coast of Miami Beach. For days, as the boats race, the party rages on, offering an epic display of drunkenness and nudity. To Magdalena’s dismay, this year’s orgy includes the late-night projection of a porn film on a huge mainsail—a Technicolor display of genitalia on a Brobdingnagian scale. Stuck within this “flotilla of depraved lunatics,” Magdalena “felt more than depressed. Something about it made her afraid.”
Nestor also abandons his Hialeah comfort zone. He wants vindication and a fresh start. Wolfe, however, sends him on a wild ride through some of the darker quarters of the beautiful city long known as a sunny place for shady people. Nestor encounters a fine mix of dodgy Wolfeian characters, including an art forger, a crooked Russian tycoon, some strippers, and a mammoth drug dealer conducting business in Overtown, where the demand for crack is always high. When Nestor’s arrest of the drug thug turns up on YouTube, the muscular young cop is assailed once more. Nestor is earnest and well-intentioned, but now finds he has “a proven ability to piss people off in gross numbers.”
Nestor’s life is brightened, however, when he befriends Ghislaine Lantier, a pretty college student looking to do some good in the world. Ghislaine is sympathetically drawn, unlike her father, a Haitian-born professor whose sense of high status derives from his belief that he is “essentially European,” a “descendant of the prominent de Lantiers of Normandy.” He believes he is therefore intrinsically superior to all those ill-educated, dark-skinned Haitians who have also made their way to Miami, bringing along their rural superstitions and their “language for primitives,” Creole. Back in Haiti,
no family like his, the Lantiers, even looked at really black Haitians. Didn’t so much as waste a glance on them . . . couldn’t even see them unless they were physically in the way.
With his own particular snobbery, Professor Lantier represents the infatuation with ancestry—with “blood”—that Wolfe finds resilient not only in Miami but everywhere the supposed wonders of multiculturalism have taken hold. In Wolfe’s view, it’s no accident that this fixation upon ethnicity and race has come to the fore. It is yet another symptom of cultural fragmentation. It’s the soil in which tribal animosities find nourishment and thrive. “The secret about Miami,” notes one character, “is that everybody hates everybody.”
Wolfe has a long record of mocking the reigning clichés of the cultural left, and works like Radical Chic—his acid account of Leonard Bernstein’s courtship of the Black Panthers—retain their relevance and sting. Back in the day, Wolfe even poked fun at the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and, as a result, it’s not surprising to find his novels dismissed with disdain. When A Man in Full first appeared, both Norman Mailer and John Updike gave it a poor grade, noting that while Wolfe was trying hard, he obviously lacked the talent and the “noble purpose” (Mailer’s phrase) to merit the serious consideration of his literary betters. Updike deducted points because Wolfe “failed to be exquisite.”
Surely they knew better. Back to Blood is not Wolfe’s best book; after a strong start it grows diffuse, and several intriguing characters, including Nestor’s hardworking father, leave the stage. Still, it offers much of what Wolfe’s many readers have long enjoyed, including a profusion of apt and vivid details and a parade of characters who are both preposterously overdrawn and yet recognizably true. Back to Blood also confirms that Wolfe isn’t really a Zola-like realist, despite his well-informed sociological interests and his fondness for constructing multiplotted page-turners on Victorian-era platforms. He’s a great comic writer with a special gift for timely satire. It’s absurd to complain that Wolfe doesn’t write exquisite prose. It’s like blaming Hogarth because he doesn’t paint like Vermeer.
And although he’s often described as a conservative, Wolfe is much closer to Mark Twain than to, say, G. K. Chesterton. Like Twain, he targets pomposity in all of its rich and varied forms. And like Twain, he’s a skeptic who, in recent years, has taken to using Zola’s old term, “the human beast.” For Wolfe, man is a curious creature, preoccupied with gaining status and avoiding humiliation, and made unique not because he has a soul but because he has developed speech as a great and powerful tool.
And yet, there has always been something faintly ministerial about this lapsed Presbyterian from Richmond, the mannerly man in the crisp white suit. Unlike Twain, Wolfe does not take aim at religious faith. In fact, at least since The Me Decade (1976), Wolfe has implicitly lamented the decline of the old systems of belief and the rise of shabbier creeds peddled to his unmoored countrymen in a media-made culture that, by all appearances, has happily accepted the death of God.
In recent interviews, Wolfe has also made the point that Nietzsche’s dire prediction of “the total eclipse of all values” is, by the looks of it, coming to pass. “Anyone who thinks religion is bad for society,” Wolfe has said, “is out of his mind.” And so, beneath the comedy of his recent fiction, one detects the same fear that gripped Magdalena at the Columbus Day Regatta, even as her loony lover, Norman Lewis, urges her to relax and enjoy the view. This lurid carnival, Lewis explains, is “an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!” It is “Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons . . . a picture of mankind with all the rules removed.”
It is also the grim picture that this sprawling and funny novel provides.
Brian Murray teaches at Loyola University Maryland.