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Remixing the Melting Pot

Tom Wolfe paints Miami red.

By From the November 2012 issue

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Back to Blood
By Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, 720 pages, $30)

Throughout the last century, each decade was rich in novelists whose works climbed quickly to the tops of our best-seller lists, a time when the serious novelists were also the popular novelists: William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, John Marquand, John O’Hara, James Gould Cozzens, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck, Edwin O’Connor, William Faulkner, Wallace Stegner, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, to name just a few. Some were panned, some were praised, but all were read.

The preferred genre was the novel of manners, passed down from Austen, Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray; it’s to this great tradition that Tom Wolfe is heir. And as the American novel continues to grow smaller, painted on an ever shrinking canvas, increasingly indwelling and careful never to exceed the boundaries imposed by the commissars of political correctness, Wolfe may be the only great mannerist left still writing large social novels—and doing so with high style, hard work, and a healthy measure of defiance.

In Back to Blood he continues to bring it off. It may be that he succeeds because he understands, as our reigning literary commissars do not, that although the terms of social engagement have shifted dramatically, basic decency and standards of human behavior have not. This basic insight, simple yet profound, is what a great number of readers—one suspects a majority—are hungry for in our literature.

From the beginning, first as leading practitioner of the “New Journalism” (now called Creative Nonfiction and taught in university writing programs), Wolfe has been uniquely able to capture and satirize the pretensions and excesses characteristic of distinct periods in American social history, as in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and to celebrate the basic and unchanging strengths of our country, as in The Right Stuff. No doubt in part to show other writers how it’s done, he wrote an extraordinary novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was both a runaway best seller and critically acclaimed—a rarity in our age, and a throwback to the novels we once routinely expected from our best writers. Bonfire was followed by two substantial and much-discussed novels, A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons. In each case, the sharp, accurate, and wide-ranging social observations and criticism set his novels apart from the increasingly introspective efforts of his peers.

IN THE MIAMI in which Wolfe sets Back to Blood, there’s a new social structure to be examined, a tribal system built on determinants such as race, ethnicity, blood—a structure within which each tribe scrambles for supremacy. As Wolfe’s venal Cuban mayor of Miami, Dionisio Cruz, puts it: “I was talking to a woman…a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’”

The old melting-pot concept has been turned on its head. Miami has become an American city where Anglos or wannabe Anglos, descendants of the men who gave us that concept, are now, along with blacks and Asians, a distinct minority. Miami has become the unofficial capital of Latin America, and its Cuban population sets the standard for minority assimilation. Cuban Americans are good citizens and fierce patriots, especially insofar as they perceive the U.S. to be unyielding in its opposition to Fidel Castro. But let that opposition show sign of softening, and the reaction sends tremors through the political establishment, as well as those institutions like the press, accustomed to shaping rather than buckling to public opinion.

This will cause problems for Wolfe’s Miami Herald editor, Edward T. Topping IV (his son’s nickname is Fiver), who is on the surface “an ideal-typical member of the breed [WASP]…Hotchkiss, Yale… tall, six-three, slender in a gangly way… light-brown hair, thick but shot through with glints of gray…looked like Donegal tweed, his hair did….” But beneath the surface, he’s a timorous man, deathly afraid of his sharp-tongued wife, full of self-doubt, wanting to be known as a great newsman, but knowing nothing about the business, and given to slender thoughts that skim along the surface of his consciousness, as he plays the role of an editor of a great daily in the way he thinks it should be played. (One of Wolfe’s signature techniques is to allow his characters’ thoughts to run through the narrative, dramatizing the differences between appearance and reality.)

But Jesus Christ, [Topping] wonders, what was some White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, some last lost soul of a dying genus, doing editing the Miami Herald?…He had taken the job without a clue. When the Loop Syndicate bought the Herald from the McClatchy Company and suddenly promoted him….he had only one question: How big a splash will this make in the Yale alumni magazine?

 The Loop researchers, he recalls vaguely, tried to brief him. He tries to remember. Did they tell him that more than half of all Miami’s citizens were recent (within the past 50 years) immigrants?

Who would have guessed? Did one segment of them, the Cubans, control the city politically—Cuban mayor, Cuban department heads, Cuban cops….60 percent of the force Cubans plus 10 percent other Latins, 18 percent American blacks, and only 12 percent Anglos? And didn’t the general population break down pretty much the same way?…Hmmmh….Interesting I’m sure….And did the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky…for the sole purpose of pushing black people around?…And had Haitians been pouring into Miami by the untold tens of thousands, resenting the fact that the American government legalized illegal Cuban immigrants in a snap of the fingers….and now Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Russians, Israelis….Hmmmmh….How does all that go again?

The purpose of the briefing had been to identify the tensions and “encourage Ed and his staff to ‘make allowances’ and stress Diversity, which was good, even rather noble…he should be careful not to antagonize any of these factions.…He should ‘maintain an even keel’” while the Syndicate “was going all out to ‘cyberize’ the Herald and El Nuevo Herald, free them from the gnarled old grip of print….The subtext was, in the meantime, if the mutts start growling, snarling and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.”

Unfortunately for Topping, the mutts are soon set growling by Nestor Comacho, a young Cuban American cop serving in a police maritime unit who stars in the story that Topping thinks will bring him the accolade he hears in his reveries: “He’s a real newspaper man.” Comacho, on duty with the marine patrol, climbs a rope to the top of a sailboat’s mast to rescue a man apparently immobilized there, locks his legs around him, and, swinging hand over hand some 80 feet down a cable, brings the man to the deck. The cameras are there; he’s treated as a hero, tells his story to a Herald reporter named John Smith, and is spread across the front page of the newspaper.

But there were also crowds of Cubans on the scene, cursing and jeering, claiming that the man was an escapee from Castro’s Cuba, trying to reach a bridge that abutted the boat so that he could stand on American soil and be given asylum. By disrupting the plan, Comacho becomes a traitor to his fellow Cubans and unwelcome in his own family. As the growls grow louder and Topping’s brief triumph explodes, the reporter Smith approaches him with a new story involving art forgeries, a swindling Russian oligarch, and millions of dollars worth of fake early modernist paintings, along with a fortune spent to house them. Topping worries that this will reduce the Miami arts establishment to a bunch of “utterly lame-brained, unbelievably gullible, unbelievable culture strivers! The horse laugh would resound round the world!”

Smith is ordered to drop the story, but with Nestor Comacho’s help, pursues and breaks it. Because the forgery scam is not only huge in Miami but is of international proportions, Smith wins universal acclaim for his paper and for his editor, who tried to call him off the trail. And although the Miami arts establishment does indeed prove to be a bunch of gullible, lame-brained “culture strivers,” Edward Topping IV himself “had become a new man, a strong man, a real man, and a credit to the newspaper game.”

IN THE MANNERS NOVEL TRADITION, and in many ways harkening back to Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, Back to Blood is rich in secondary characters who personify the pretensions, vices, and excesses of Wolfe’s Miami—a layer of people with “pride in status but no pride in function,” as Lionel Trilling, defining snobbery, once put it. Wolfe’s “culture strivers,” with no real-world role to play, are superficial and unpleasant and often repulsive people sitting atop a sharply shifting social structure, with no sense of the tectonic changes grinding just beneath them.

Among the most repulsive: Maurice Fleischmann, a billionaire plagued with clusters of herpes sores and obsessed with sex, who is encouraged as part of his treatment to watch pornography and attend showings and auctions of pornographic art by Dr. Norman Lewis, a psychiatrist with an unnerving laugh (irritating even on paper) who describes his work this way: “I have the hopeless obligation to tell people there’s no such thing as addiction, medically. They don’t want to believe that! They’d much rather believeaahhhHAHAHA Hock hock hock hock—believe they’re sick—kahHAHock hock hock hock!

But they are sick, of course, and as his nurse Magdalena Otero comes to realize, there’s no advantage in trying to cure them. As Dr. Lewis takes her with him, always in the company of the repulsive Fleischman, to pornographic shows, she comes to realize that Lewis is actually keeping his richest patient in a permanent state of arousal, in order to gain entrée into the world of big money and influence, where he thinks he belongs, and where he can harvest new patients.

In Back to Blood, connoisseurs of pornography mingle with connoisseurs of forged modern art, their pretensions and perversions feeding bottom-dwellers like Dr. Lewis and art forgers, with pornography arousing counterfeit emotions, onanistic pleasure without purpose or ultimate satisfaction, and with the modern art coveted by Wolfe’s strivers devoid of any aesthetic substance or artistic integrity—or for that matter, any real skill—and thus easily forged.

Magdalena, who at the beginning of the novel had been Nestor Comacho’s love interest, is an unusually attractive and perceptive but naïve girl who tends to live in a world of romantic fantasy. At times, she serves as a unifying strand, threading her way through the plot and subplots. And when she’s not thinking self-consciously about the impression she’s making, she can function as a silent chorus, representing simple common sense as she thinks about such matters as pornography or modern art.

Here she is, standing before a painting, seeing “two half-round shapes, one a simple black and the other one a simple white, painted on a beigey-gray background. The two shapes were separated from each other and cocked at cockeyed angles….You’d have to be a cretin to stand here actually studying this mierda….Not even the old fools who pay millions for this idiotic nonsense….are so retarded they actually look at it.”

She finally allows herself to bring the same sort of perceptiveness to bear on her relationship with Dr. Lewis, who then, along with his awful laugh, drops from our sight and hearing. But her romantic side reasserts itself, and she’s swept off her feet by Sergei Korolyov, the reigning Russian oligarch who had given millions of dollars’ worth of paintings to the Miami Art Museum. Korolyov drives her off to his penthouse, where he has his way with her, and then on the morning after gets word that his scam has been blown, and reads the account in the Herald given by the drunken forger, Igor Drukovich. (Drukovich makes fun of the Russian modernists—Malevich, Goncharova, and Kandinsky. “Does Drukovich think he could do what they’ve done? ‘Anybody could!’ he says. ‘My nephew who has a paint box and a brush could do it.”)

Korolyov makes arrangements for a getaway flight, has Drukovich disposed of (he’s found dead by Comacho at the bottom of a flight of stairs with his neck broken), and leaves Magdalena naked in his bed and Miami with the new Sergei Korolyov Museum of Art and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of forged paintings.

MAGDELENA, NOW SADDER and somewhat wiser, tries to reunite with Nestor Comacho. But in another subplot, there’s a lovely almost-fair maiden who takes great pride in her pigmentation, Ghislaine, the ladylike, light-skinned daughter of a pretentious Haitian professor of French. She’s rescued by Comacho, who apparently wins her heart, giving readers a happy ending (if Comacho can win over the snobbish father) and providing Miami the promise of further mingling of the bloods.

Smith and Comacho, the book’s real heroes, would seem to have little in common. To Comacho, Smith is “a living embodiment of a creature everybody had heard of but nobody ever met in Miami, the WASP, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant….a classic Americano, tall, thin, pale, wearing a navy blazer, a white polo shirt, khaki pants with freshly pressed creases down the front….very proper looking….soft spoken to the point of shy.”

But although totally different externally, they both personify a distinct integrity, as does the black chief of police, the third of Wolfe’s admirable characters. All three take great pride in their work (Smith, who as a serious reporter allows nothing to get in his way, might well be modeled on the author), and each risks his career to do the right thing, and do it in the right way.

In these central characters, Tom Wolfe again gives us men in full, who in an age of extraordinary uncertainty, embody the old verities—or perhaps, more accurately, the right stuff. And no matter how our society changes, that remains the same.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).