The masters of the universe in Tom Wolfe's "Back to Blood" don't resemble their counterparts in the writer's other novels. Their voices are louder, their wardrobes are looser, their brows are sweatier and their accents are funnier than the almighty, egocentric people found in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "A Man in Full" and "The Right Stuff." They leak money like tostones leak grease, they prefer their native tongue over English, their politics are combustible, and when one of their own acts in a way that could be perceived as treasonous, they dole out punishment swiftly and viciously.
I'm talking, of course, about the Russians.
For all the chatter about "Back to Blood" being Wolfe's long-awaited satirical look at Miami's Cuban community and its dominance over the city's cultural, political and sexual life, the 704-page book doesn't take long to dispel the reader of that notion. The 81-year-old writer may have, at one time, planned to subject Miami's Cubans to the same protracted, Wolfean treatment he delivered to Wall Street's WASPs, Atlanta's socialites and, albeit in a more-journalistic manner, NASA's early space cowboys. If only he'd followed through on that plan, we might actually recognize the characters in this hyperbolic, hyperventilating caricature of a novel.
The characters in "Back to Blood" are exactly that: imaginary people with larger- than-(and, in the worst cases, smaller-than)-life personalities whom Wolfe places in impossible situation after impossible situation until you're tempted to put the book down, walk outside and make sure the world is the same as you remember it. Wolfe's Miami Cubans aren't just loud, but caps-lock loud ("GO AHEAD! GET OUTTA HERE! GET OUTTA HIALEAH! GET OUTTA MY SIGHT," one tells a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend). His younger, second-generation Cubans don't just join gyms, they join gyms with names such as Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym! And when his Cubans have run-ins with "americanos" who object to their accented, bilingual speech, they say things such as "We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!"
Wolfe's cops, meanwhile, aren't just racist cops, they're blatantly racist cops whose blatantly racist acts are broadcast on YouTube. His Haitians really want to be French, his old "yentas" don't walk but "clink clink … clatter clatter clatter," his teenagers aren't just horny but hypomaniacally horny, and his Russians, oh, his Russians are Russian with a capital "Ze."
Recognize any of these people? Well, you shouldn't. Miami's middle class is noticeable in "Back to Blood" only for its absence, and while the names of the municipalities, suburbs and gated communities are real, they, too, are presented as funhouse-mirror reflections of actual places.
And yet. And yet for all Wolfe gets wrong about South Florida, and for as much as his prose has a tendency to grate here, he's never boring. "Back to Blood," a book that weighs more than most newborns, is a relatively quick read, plotted and paced so swiftly that you don't have time to stop and analyze most of its major flaws until after the whole thing careens to an oddly abrupt halt. The novel's initial plot involves a young, Cuban-American police officer's arrest of a "wet foot" Cuban dissident aboard a schooner on Biscayne Bay. Nestor Camacho's daring, high-wire and implausible rescue/detention of the refugee is captured on live TV and endlessly dissected on Spanish-language radio, in the panaderias of Hialeah and in the pages of "Yo no creo El Miami Herald." Camacho, ostracized by his community and his family, finds an unlikely ally in a dull, Yale-educated Herald reporter named John Smith, the novel's thinnest, most-limpid character. After portraying Camacho as a hero in the pages of the newspaper, Smith enlists the self-absorbed, musclebound cop to help him take down Sergei Korolyov, the Russian oligarch he believes donated $70 million worth of forged artworks to the Miami Art Museum, which in a show of thanks renamed itself the Korolyov Museum of Art.
This brings us to the real object of Wolfe's satire in "Back to Blood." If Wolfe's Cubans believe they're the beating, screaming, caffeinated heart of Miami, his Russian art dealers, Art Basel phonies and Wynwood denizens believe they're its slumming, intellectual elite, "skipping and screaming with nostalgie de la boue, 'nostalgia for the mud' ... eager to inhale the emanations of Art and other High Things amid the squalor of it all." Wolfe reserves his sharpest attacks for South Florida's art scene, and his chapter on the orgiastic Art Basel Miami Beach, "The Super Bowl of the Art World," is the novel's most-hysterical, and best. Basel brings out the journalist in Wolfe, and he has great fun eviscerating its "riot of cocktail receptions, dinner parties, after-parties, covert cocaine huddles, inflamed catting around ..." And in a single sentence, he offers what may be the most-apt description yet of the city's favorite art district: "In Wynwood, even the palm trees were bohemian ... poor raggedy strays ... one over here ... another over there ... and all of them mangy."
Wolfe has so much fun deriding the local art scene, and toying with the cartoonishly accented English of the Russians he believes have infiltrated it, that the book's ostensible targets — those caps-lock Cubans — are all but forgotten. South Florida, "Back to Blood" argues, is anyone's for the taking. And the less-authentic a person is, the greater shot he has at taking it.
Near the end of the book, Smith convinces Camacho to pose as a Miami Herald photographer during an interview with the Russian artist he believes is Korolyov's master forger. "You don't have to look through anything," Smith tells the befuddled, digital-camera-ignorant cop. "All you have to do is look at this image right here ... and then you press this button. Actually — forget the image and just press the button. All we need is that little whine it makes. You only need to sound like a photographer."