The Magazine

Miami Vise

A Cuban-American cop gets caught in a web of allegiances.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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.