Fourteen years ago, journalist Michael Lewis, reviewing Tom Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, noted the author’s age and fretted, “My God, this one could be his last!” Well, not quite. At 81, Wolfe has returned with his fourth work of fiction, Back to Blood, an energetic and unflinching satire of “post-racial” America, viewed through the lens of the still-very-racial city of Miami.
Wolfe, who once self-identified as a “status theorist,” has long obsessed over the shifting tectonic plates of social order, tribal affiliation, and class stratification in America. In his earlier years, Wolfe’s journalism absorbed the milieus of hippies, astronauts, art curators, limousine liberals, and military men, ruthlessly mocking those who invited mockery. Twenty-five years after his debut novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, satirized the state of race and class in 1980s New York, the city has been neutered by gentrification. In 21st-century America, Wolfe argues, it’s Miami that’s a bubbling cauldron of racial tension.
Back to Blood opens with policeman Nestor Camacho, an assimilated second-generation -Cuban, saving the life of a Cuban refugee—and potentially guaranteeing his deportation to Havana—for which he is rejected by the exile community (his blood). This heroism precipitates two very different local headlines, which serve to underscore the city’s divergent visions: one celebrates his valor (The -Miami Herald); another questions his tribal loyalty (El Nuevo Herald). Indeed, in the course of his -police work, Camacho ambles into a -series of situations that threaten to ignite small-scale race wars. As Wolfe -announces, “All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their mind—Back to blood!”
In Wolfe’s Miami—a very good approximation of actual Miami—Cubans and African-Americans eye each other warily, and it’s the white cops who are referred to as “you people,” the “minorities” on the majority Hispanic force. Add to this volatile mix a Haitian college professor who laments his son’s assimilation into African-American culture of “stupid clothes and the ignorant hip-hop music, and the vile Black English” (African-American is a phrase, Wolfe writes, that “white folks uttered ... like they were walking across a bed of exploded lightbulb shards”), sleazy Russian oligarchs who haunt the city’s burgeoning art scene, an Anglo doctor who counsels porn addicts, and a WASP journalist with “khaki pants so well pressed you could cut your finger on the crease.”
These characters, all brilliantly rendered, serve as portals into separate and unequal Miami—the grinding poverty found in the African-American enclave of Overtown, the sexual hedonism of the Columbus Day Regatta, the promiscuous spending of nouveau riche collectors at Art Basel Miami—their blood mixing like unstable compounds.
Back to Blood is a bracing vision of America’s shifting demography and the immutability of ethnic conflict and class aspirations. Twenty-five years out from The Bonfire of the Vanities, the octogenarian Wolfe demonstrates that his skills as a novelist and a chronicler of America’s class anxieties are undiminished, causing the reader to fret, “My God, this one could be his last!”