More Tom Wolfe characters under social pressure, this time in Miami

Posted: October 22, 2012

'In Miami, everybody hates everybody."

That's what Dionisio Cruz, mayor of Miami, tells Chief of Police Cyrus Booker in Tom Wolfe's novel Back to Blood (Little, Brown, $30).

Wolfe, who appears Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, says: "It's not inevitable, that kind of friction, but it's a city of immigrants, like no other, and you're going to have tensions."

Back to Blood is another novel in which the celebrated reporter, reluctant godfather of New Journalism, and novelist (starting with The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1989) tackles his great interest as a writer: "What people do under the stress of social pressure."

Speaking by phone from his home in Manhattan, Wolfe, 81, says, "Everyone has some psychological makeup of his, her own, different in each one of us. But that doesn't determine who you are or what you are - you have to intersect with the society around you. And you don't know how that plot is going to turn out!"

With the sweep, particularity, and deliciously flamboyant language that have become Wolfe trademarks, Back to Blood tackles Miami and environs - "a melting pot in which none of the elements actually melts," Wolfe says. Across his pages run characters of Cuban, Haitian, African American, Russian, and Anglo background, politicians, nurses, sex therapists, cops, Russian oligarchs, reality-TV producers, Haitian professors, undocumented immigrants, and reporters who haul us into their worlds.

"It's the only city, apparently, that I've been able to find, in which people from other countries, speaking different languages, have so quickly become the majority and have permeated all aspects of life, from the architecture to the ballot box," says Wolfe. It's "a real collision of languages, skin tones, outlooks, and cultures."

Wolfe has made a career of reporting social collision. Even before his mid-1960s success, Wolfe was an award-winning foreign correspondent and reporter. His 1963 Esquire essay "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmm-mmmmm . . .)" led to his breakout 1965 collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Since then, he has probed points at which our society contradicts, conflicts, doesn't make sense, or is plain crazy: Race-car culture; hippie culture; the New York of Leonard Bernstein opening its arms to the Black Panthers; NASA; Wall Street; modern art, literature, architecture; extreme porn.

Wolfe was among the first U.S. writers to address nonfiction with the full kit bag of fiction techniques, including radically experimental sentence structure and punctuation (he's an innovator in exclamation points, dashes, italics, colons, and typography), and interior monologues. Much is carried off with buoyant, often outrageous, humor. As of Bonfire, Wolfe turned the tables and applied the techniques of journalism to creation of fictional worlds. His essay "The Last American Hero," his nonfiction book The Right Stuff, and Bonfire were made into prominent films. He has won a National Book Award and many other honors.

"I began wanting to write a book about immigration," Wolfe says. "Then I heard about Miami. . . . I just became fascinated by how singular, how unusual, and yet how American Miami is."

All the characters in Back to Blood have their own problems - and all, consciously or unconsciously, try to face or escape their social situations. A Cuban American cop makes a daring rescue on TV - and is treated as a traitor by the Cuban community. A sex doctor, desperately masking personal doubts, tries to rise into high society, which includes bad art sold for millions and porn-on-steroids orgies. A bad guy (or is he?) is tricked into humiliating himself on TV.

Throughout, we get the lovingly detailed material reality of these people's lives. But Wolfeian description is seldom just pretty writing - almost always, the physical environment tells the person, tells the society. We drive through Hialeah, "the real Cuban community, much more than Little Havana," says Wolfe, "some 220,000 people as compared to city-limits Miami, which is more than 400,000." We see plush universities, Art Deco houses, the Russian enclaves north of Miami, the velvet walls of the Russian club Gogol, and a night at a strip joint called The Honey Pot - described in detail you could master only if you knew your art, architecture, and fashion. Which Wolfe does.

We can tell all about the owner of a tasteless room just from the description: "a huge overelegant bedroom decorated in what was meant to be a grand manner but wound up looking more fussy and finicky than anything else."

"You don't need novels to become aware of your houses and other physical surroundings and what they say about you," Wolfe says, "but a novel can lay it out for you. You know, Bonfire was originally going to be a nonfiction book. But then people were saying to me, 'Well, you're a nonfiction writer, scared of trying to write the big novel,' so I thought, 'OK, I'll write one, show I can do it.' But I work my novels up much the same way: research. It's a hell of a lot of work."

Several characters sell out in Back to Blood. It's something of a Wolfe theme: People will ignore conscience if that lets them keep their cozy setups. We see such devil-deals in characters like the Cuban nurse Magdalena Otero or Chief of Police Cruz. We see it in the way people eagerly sign releases so they can be in reality-TV shows. "But that's humanity," Wolfe says. "And it's probably easier in a big city, where you don't have a pressing circle of family looking over your shoulder."

Back to Blood has sex - a lot of it, of an in-your-face, larger-than-imaginable sort. This, too, intersects with the manifold other junctures of class, status, race, and history, and speaks of Miami and its people. Wolfe says: "The city has more than 140 strip clubs, a far greater concentration than anywhere else. And there are no rules."

Despite his evisceration of office politics, psychology, race relations, police behavior, exurban blight, and media madness  , Wolfe chuckles when called a satirist. "I was surprised, although by now I understand it, when people first called me that," he says. "I'm not out to embarrass or hurt anyone. When Bonfire came out, people said, 'Do you really think the modern world is so bleak?' And I didn't see my book that way at all. I'm much more interested in these people and what they're going to do in their circumstances."

The fun for Wolfe has been to get these people on the big stage of their world - and watch them go.

"There's so many great stories to tell," says Wolfe, "so many great things to cover in this country."


Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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