Review of “Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe
“Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell—in the world—whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants… recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years… and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you—I was talking to a woman about this the other day, 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.’”
. . .
try mixing the white, the black, the brown, and the yellow in a place like this! It wouldn’t last one hour! It would explode! Nothing left but blood and sexual debris—
. . .
“You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed. You will see Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons. And that’s where Man is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!”
The main character in the novel is Nestor Camacho, the son of Cuban immigrants and a police man. As with other Wolfe books, the location (in this case Miami) is arguably the main character.
There are four important events in the book, all of which involve Nestor. In all of the events, Nestor does the right thing, but is punished because his actions run afoul of the unwritten race-based rules that govern the city. The first event deals with Cubans, the next two deal with blacks and the last one deals with whites.
After I recap these events, I’ll discuss the main characters: Nestor Camacho, the white hispanic (Wolfe doesn’t use this term, but it perfectly encapsulates what he’s getting at with Nestor – for a lot of reasons, it’s too bad the Trayvon Martin affair happened just before the book was published instead of just afterwards); Magdalena, the sexual marketplace in action; Ghislaine Lantier, the white black; and John Smith, “how much more americano [i.e. white] could you get.”
The book opens as Nestor and several other cops are called to a boat in the bay. Apparently, a (Cuban) man climbed out of the water onto the boat.
After some feats of strength, Nestor manages to save the man from harm, but in the process, the man is apprehended by the police before he sets foot on American soil. Thanks to American immigration policy for Cubans (which several characters in the book refer to as America’s “most-favored migration” policy), this means that the man must be returned to Cuba.
The Cubans in Miami are, of course, furious about this. The Cubans claim that this particular man is the leader of some anti-Castro group, but the government can’t find any references to this group or this man anywhere.
Thanks to some reporting from the Miami Herald Nestor is considered a hero by many people in the community. Unfortunately, the Cubans (including his own family), despise him for his “betrayal” of his countryman.
The second main event happens when Nestor is sent into a housing project to bust a cocaine dealer (black). This particular dealer is a very large, strong man. In a fit of rage, the dealer tries to strangle Nestor’s boss (Cuban). Nestor manages to subdue the guy without killing him.
Again, Nestor is initially a hero. However, when things settled down, Nestor’s boss said something politically incorrect about the guy who had recently tried to kill him and some bystander in the crack house in the projects filmed the end of the incident with his cell phone and put the video on youtube. The crack dealer is let go, because – of course – you can’t arrest someone for dealing crack when the arresting cops are racist.
When it’s discovered that one of the cops said something racist, both cops immediately become “white” in all the press reports and polite conversations, even though they’re both Cuban.
The third event takes place at a largely-black high school. The cops are called in to arrest a (Hispanic) teacher. Supposedly this teacher has attacked a (black) student. The cops have to move through something just sort of riot to get the teacher out and arrest him.
Nestor (with help from Ghislaine) discovers that the student who was attacked by the teacher made up the story. The teacher never attacked the student – the student was the leader of a gang and he made other students support his story.
The fourth event is about art. Miami is, after all, home to one of the most important contemporary art events in the world. Wolfe is never one to pass up making fun of contemporary art and those who seem to actually like it.
An art institute in Miami is named after a wealthy Russian immigrant who donated important works of art to the museum. Apparently, these works were fakes.
John Smith and Nestor (Smith wrote about Nestor in some of previous events and they decided to work on this issue together) uncover the forgeries and find the forger. The forger is killed, but the plot is eventually revealed. Again, they’re heroes, but the reader suspects that there may be a price to pay for making the Miami elite (whites) look like fools for loving the forgeries and naming the museum after the a swindler.
Nestor is probably supposed to be the quintessential Miami resident. He’s Cuban, but he feels American – he can barely speak Spanish. As his actions in and his confusion about the reaction of the Cuban community to the first event demonstrate, he doesn’t feel particularly loyal to Cuba.
Nestor is also the character that let’s Wolfe explain how the Hispanic community in Miami works.
Wolfe notes that, “latino and latina were spanish words that existed only in America.” Cubans consider themselves Cuban, etc.
It would be an overstatement to say that Cuban’s control Miami, but they do control it politically. (Do take a minute to check out the city’s demographics).
Nestor’s family lives in Hialeah. Once, the areas was beautiful. Now, everyone goes outside to water their pavement – they’ve paved over their yards, apparently. As Wolfe can’t help but note at one point, “why didn’t everybody get together and water just one tree?”
When we’re introduced to the people that run the newspaper, we’re assured that paper will celebrate diversity, but we’re also assured that good reporters know “who hated whom and why.” Nestor’s fundamental problem throughout the novel is that he doesn’t understand who hates whom and why.
Nestor never does anything wrong – far from it, he commits one heroic act after another. In the first event, he probably saved a guy’s life. In the second he saved at least one, if not two lives. In the third he saved a guy from jail. In the fourth he discovered a massive fraud.
However, in the first event, he didn’t help a Cuban get onto US soil (though it wasn’t clear how he could have done so had he wanted to). In the second event he was standing pretty close to a guy who said something moderately racist. In the third event, he may have come out ok. However, a reader can’t help but suspect that the public may not look kindly on someone who proves a stereotype correct after the black community had gotten all excited about this particular event going against the stereotypical grain. In the last even, as I said, Nestor made a lot of wealthy people look like assholes.
While American universities may be the best place to explore the “lurid carnival” that is the modern sexual marketplace, but Miami is probably a close second.
Magdalena (hispanic) is the character with which Wolfe explores this topic some more. As the book opens, she’s dating Nestor and working in a psychiatrist’s office.
We quickly come to find out that she’s dating both Nestor and the psychiatrist. She quickly settles on the psychiatrist. Nestor is a strong, physically fit guy, but the doctor is a doctor and he’s about to appear on 60 Minutes! He’ll be talking about his speciality, pornography addiction.
Before long, Magdalena meets the Russian collector (the one that forged the paintings) and trades up immediately from the doctor the Russian. He’s rich!
It’s important – before we get to the rest of the dynamics of the sexual marketplace – to point out that Magdalena acts exactly as game would predict. It’s important because through dating the doctor, Magdalena gets a first hand glimpse into the life of the wealthy (white) in Miami. And she’s appalled by what she sees. Ironically, they’re basically all porn addicts.
The doctor treats patients for pornography addiction. “Treats” is a strong word, since it’s pretty clear that the doctor has little intention of actually helping his patients, particularly one who is very rich (and has a Jewish name, though Wolfe doesn’t mention the religion in this book) and very happy to take the doctor and Magdalena to all sorts of wealthy-only parties.
Wolfe is more than happy to criticize whites as well those of other races. He apparently sees the whites (largely the wealthy) as obsessed with sex, getting absurdly drunk, crappy art, and very weak coffee.
The doctor demands a blowjob from Magdalena while the crew from 60 Minutes waits outside his office door. He takes to a “regatta” off a very exclusive island south of Miami. The regatta is really just an orgy. The contemporary art fair is indistinguishable from a pornography exhibition.
In the end, Magdalena gets used up by the modern sexual marketplace and – one suspects – wishes she’d stayed with Nestor, which brings us to . . .
Ghislaine is the main character among this group, but I can’t resist adding a few words about the family (black).
The family is from Haiti. Like most countries (other than the US), Haiti has always recognized degrees of blackness.
Ghislaine’s father is a professor, and in one of his inner monologues he notes that, “back in Haiti, no family like his, the Lantiers, even looked at really black Haitians.”
Indeed, but they’re not in Haiti. They’re in American, so they’re black.
(As an aside, there’s generally one character in Wolfe’s novels that recognizes obscure architectural details, disdains other characters wearing jeans below their waists, and notices the prominence of certain obscure muscle groups on certain characters – the Tom Wolfe character in the Tom Wolfe novel, perhaps. In this book, the professor is that character).
To add further insult to the professor’s injury, although he’s a professor of French, he has to teach Creole. His thoughts on this fact are that:
For any university to teach this stupid language was either what Veblen called “conspicuous waste” or one of the endless travesties created by the doctrine of political correctness. It was like instituting courses and hiring faculty to teach the mongrel form of the Mayan language that people up in the mountains of Guatemala spoke—
While his daughter Ghislaine can pass (as white), his son can’t. The professor fell in love with an original art deco house and has poured all his money into it. Unfortunately for him, it’s in a neighborhood with – ahem – bad schools (particularly, the high school mentioned above, which his son attends).
Much to the professor’s chagrin, his son has embraced his blackness. Haitian boys attending school in the US quickly find out that they have no other option if they don’t want to be perpetually beat up. While his father wants his son to speak French,
Antoine [the son] always tried to be cool and speak in perfect Black English, every illiterate, seventy-five-IQ syllable and sound of it. When that was too difficult a linguistic leap, he reverted to Creole. Antoine was one of those black-as-midnight Haitians—
Generally, the blacks in Miami seem to resent the presence of the Cubans. It so happens, in Miami, that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of crime and that a majority of the policemen are Cubans. These leads to some . . . tension. As Wolfe puts it, “the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky, they had materialized so suddenly, for [it seems to this character] the sole purpose of pushing black people around.”
Smith isn’t really a main character. At this point, one could write about the editor of the paper or the Russians who play an odd role in the book. I can’t resist writing about Smith though.
In Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe portrayed the press negatively. In Charlotte Simmons, the student that wrote for the college newspaper broke a big story, but he was such a beta that you couldn’t really like the guy. John Smith, then, is the only reporter in a Wolfe novel (that I can think of) that the reader actually likes.
His boss comes in for plenty of criticism – for being elitist, uninterested in events that are actually newsworthy, and unwilling to cross PC boundaries. Smith is basically a good guy who does the right thing. Wolfe repeatedly reminds the reader that Smith is white (John Smith!) and a Yale graduate.
Some of Wolfe’s other novels have bad endings. This one ends with Nestor feeling triumphant for busting the Russian and free the teacher who has been wrongly accused. In his moment of triumph, he calls Ghislaine (not Magdalena, as the reader was suspecting). The book then ends abruptly. Does the sort-of-Cuban-American hit it off with the sort-of-black-American? Does Nestor pay a price for ruining the reputations of everyone with money in Miami? We’re left wondering, if perhaps not optimistic.
Finally, if you’ve read this far, you can see that this book is seemingly designed to beg for bad reviews from most publications. I looked around for other reviews and I can’t find any remotely decent ones. Most places have ignored it, or given it very cursory reviews in which they didn’t really describe the events or the themes. Perhaps, we’re reaching a point where, regardless of how well something is written, it can be ignored if it’s sufficiently un-politically correct.