Reviews — From the November 2012 issue

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Tom Wolfe is back with Back to Blood (Little, Brown and Company, $30, littlebrown.com) and I have to confess, after wading through this multiculti, multilingual, punnyfunny Miami miasma, that it’s difficult not to cop, or ape, or otherwise mix metaphors in imitation of his style. Wolfe is the greatest master of the . . . ellipsis . . . since Céline, a writer who also transcended class, but who hated minorities. Wolfe loves minorities (he loves them like he loves italics AND exclamatories!). Or maybe that should be majorities, since Miami is probably “the only city in the world where more than one half of all citizens were recent immigrants.” Whites, or “Anglos,” are on the way out—relegated to yacht, golf, and tennis clubs, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Miami is a city, and Back to Blood a book, of “Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Russians, Israelis . . .”

Nestor Camacho is an American-born Cuban who barely speaks Spanish and barely has a job with the Miami PD’s Marine Patrol. When a billionaire’s schooner floating in the shallows of Biscayne Bay is boarded by a Cuban refugee—a legit Cuban, or, as the americanos on the force refer to him to avoid demotion for profiling, a “Canadian”—Camacho (emphasis on the last two syllables) is ordered to scale the mast to the bosun’s chair and unseat him. Traffic stalls as commuters rubberneck, newscasters idle. Being on a boat, Wolfe reports, is legally synonymous with being in the water, meaning that the refugee is a “wet foot” and can be sent back to Castro. Only if he paddles his way to American soil can he become a “dry foot” and be granted asylum. By apprehending the suspect, Camacho becomes both a hero to the cops and a traidor to his people. His father, the Caudillo: “Through shit you drag the House of Camacho!”

Back to Blood coagulates from there—but feel free to pick your own analogy: the book is as outlandish, or as aesthetically bankrupt, as Art Basel Miami Beach (Chapter 10: “The Super Bowl of the Art World”); as abundant, or as nauseating, as an early-bird buffet for randy Jewish retirees (Chapter 15: “The Yentas”); as confused as the news business (The Miami Herald: “Rope-Climb Cop in ‘Mast-Erful’ Rescue”; El Nuevo Herald: “¡Detenido! ¡A Dieciocho Metros De Libertad!”), or as conflicted as Camacho himself, who, when he’s transferred to the Crime Suppression Unit, is again accused of racism after a video clip surfaces of him busting a crack dealer.

Céline, schméline. Wolfe’s ambition is to become Miami’s Zola (the mobilities of vice) or its Balzac (the staying power of money), though his failure to top the masts of Les Rougon-Macquart and La Comédie humaine is both inevitable and acknowledged. Rather, the admission comes as blame. WASPy Wolfe, in his ninth decade, has become an immigrant too—a literary alien fleeing back to the reigns of the French Napoleons. His Professor Lantier—“a descendant of the prominent de Lantiers of Normandy” but also a Haitian diversity hire at Everglades Global University—explains:

This class was not made up of the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. No classes at Everglades Global University were. The Triumph of the Nineteenth-Century French Novel . . . hah! Balzac was too much for them. He would start a chapter with a three-page description of the interior decoration of a parlor with the aim of bringing out the social position of a family in a concrete way. Sometimes it could be very funny. But the dim bulbs in his class complained of having to look up the names of so much furniture, so many fabrics, faux-velvet curtains, Récamier sofas, Jan van Mekeren floral marquetry cabinets, dining-room tables with aprons of wood carved to imitate fringed tablecloths—too much, too much, all too much—and they drew a total blank on the matter of social position. They didn’t have the faintest awareness that they were part of a social hierarchy themselves.

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