There Is a Miami Beyond This Miami: On Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

October 23, 2012 | 13 books mentioned 15 9 min read

Driving south into Miami-Dade County is less scenic than you might expect. Decades of Floridian sprawl have resulted in long, sun-bleached stretches of asphalt punctuated by industrial supply centers, physical therapy clinics, outlet malls, Waffle Houses, Pollo Tropicals, and strip clubs. The anticipated visuals – palm trees, beaches, flashy hotels, and the ocean – are blocked all along I-95 by tall concrete embankments that keep cars away from oak-less subdivisions called Highland Oaks, Rolling Oaks, or Woodlands. Long are the miles spent enduring such non-views; longer still in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

For this reason, I recommend flying into the city at night. As your plane descends from the West, you can peer out your window. What you’ll see at first is nothing: endless blackness in every direction, a sight so rare in some parts of this country that its effect at first is jarring. Am I over the ocean? You aren’t. This is the Everglades, the swamp so gnarly it dissuaded four centuries of settlers from staying put. It’s the defining geography of South Florida, the subtropical “River of Grass” stretched like a permanent, slow-moving membrane over half the state’s limestone shelf. [To see for yourself, click the “left” arrow a couple times on this map.]

After a few moments, the darkness abruptly gives way to a line of neon city lights, a literal demarcation of where wilderness was beaten back by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now your airplane is a few hundred feet above well-lit and densely populated ground – ground that a mile previous was nothing more than mud and mangrove. From no other vantage point can someone as quickly realize that Miami is a city that shouldn’t be here, an enclave carved out from Mother Nature and cut off from its surroundings. Truly, it’s the Magic City.

coverCulturally, Miami also exists as a world apart from the rest of its own state, the rest of its own nation. The further south one travels in Florida, the further north one feels politically. After all, it’s in the northern regions where you’ll find Quran-burning pastors, pro-abortion billboards, xenophobes, and megachurches. The north gave us Tim Tebow. By contrast, the southern regions are where international relations matter more than American elections, where most residents actually know the difference between “socialism” and “Communism,” where gay pride is evident, and where you probably won’t get that promotion if you can’t speak Spanish. Early in Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood, a bout of road rage lays bare this separatist feel. “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” shouts an exasperated “anglo” who’s just been cut off on the road. “No, mía malhablada puta gorda,” replies her Cuban adversary. “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”

Back to Blood is obsessed with cultural abrasion, with the way different classes and races vie for power in a city whose largest demographic is composed not so much of a single nationality as, instead, confederations of “non-Americans” pitted against an eroding white hegemony. Dionisio Cruz, the city’s fictive Cuban mayor, sums it up nicely:

“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. […] 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.’”

Dutifully, Wolfe does his best to display these conflicts. In the novel’s first chapter, we meet our hero, Nestor Camacho, a strapping Cuban cop working as a marine patrolman. On this day, he’s tasked with arresting a Cuban refugee who’s boarded a party yacht in Biscayne Bay. Real federal legislation dictates that Cuban refugees are granted admission and amnesty in the United States if and only if they reach dry land before being captured; if accosted at sea, they’re sent packing. (For Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and other groups — all of which are deported no matter how long they’ve been here — this is, justifiably, a touchy source of resentment.)

Unfortunately for Nestor, the arrest becomes a citywide cause célèbre, and the next day he finds himself on the front page of both the English-language Miami Herald (favorably) and the Spanish-language Nuevo Herald (unfavorably). His family is none too pleased. For most Cubans residing in South Florida, there is only one thing more reprehensible than Fidel Castro’s regime: prohibiting escape from it. (Miami’s Cuban demographics have traditionally voted Republican ever since John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.) As a result, Nestor’s family and peers, sympathetic with the will to flee their native island, all but disown the young cop and brand him a traidor.

But that’s not all. In the subsequent seven hundred pages — for which, reportedly, Wolfe was paid about $10,000 per — readers get glimpses of many more racial imbroglios. Nestor himself hits another racial flashpoint when a de-contextualized YouTube video emerges of him choking out a black drug dealer. We get glimpses of the love/hate relationship between the Haitian and African-American communities; the way corruption and wealth buy access to the upper echelons of “legitimate” society; the way white social strivers manipulate one another to attain superficial status; and, finally, how Miami exists for the privileged as a Will Smith video and for the poor as anything but.

This is “a book on immigration,” Wolfe told The New York Times in 2008, but that’s not really true. This is a book on belonging, and each character seeks it in a different way. Nestor wants his family to accept the fact that he was merely taking orders on that boat. His ex-girlfriend, Magdalena Otero, a psychiatric nurse who’s dating her upper-crust “anglo” boss, wants to belong anywhere but her hometown of Hialeah. Her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, wants desperately to belong atop Miami’s money-based status pyramid. John Smith, the whitest white dude ever conceived, wants his boat-shoe-wearing, Yale Eli self to be accepted in the Miami Herald newsroom, where his boss, Edward Topping IV, a fellow Eli, wants nothing more than to belong to the Miami in-crowd of socialites and rich men. The Haitian-born Lantier, a French literature professor at Florida International University — err, “Everglades Global University” — wants badly for his children to belong to any culture except for one that speaks Creole.

image At 81 years old, Wolfe still practices the on-the-ground reporting he’s always prescribed. I was twenty-two months old when he published his Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (PDF),” an entreaty for American novelists to emphasize realism. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, when Wolfe was on top of his game, he incisively depicted a sliver of New York City’s 1980s decadence with the nostalgic accuracy of a Polaroid snapshot. However since then total immersion has proved more and more elusive and his recent novels have been marred by generational misunderstandings, clueless errors, political prejudices, and unfortunate, altogether creepy portrayals of women and youth. This descent is evidenced by his latest imitations of rap lyrics. I Am Charlotte Simmons subjected us to: “Short’s Johnson, he go roamin’ / Homey’s jeans a his is packin’ heat / Inside that cracker jack’s own home, an’ / Bottom lady wants ‘at sweet dark meat.”

Fortunately, Wolfe has done some more homework this time. While his rap lyrics haven’t improved (“Caliente! Caliente, baby. / Got plenty fuego in yo caja china / Means you needs a length a Hose put in it, / Ain’ no maybe —”), he has apparently grasped Miami more firmly than he could grasp the American university system. Real places and legitimate commentary are sprinkled throughout the novel like cocaine in a South Beach bathroom. One of Wolfe’s Cuban characters correctly describes Hialeah and its vicinity (Dade County’s most overwhelmingly Latin neighborhoods) as being similar to “Singapore or Taiwan or Hong Kong” in that it’s a sort of free enclave within another country. Other actual Miami institutions are depicted satirically and accurately, such as the trendy and porn-soaked Wynwood Art Walk, the decadent Art Basel festival, and the orgiastic Columbus Day Regatta. (Don’t Google image search that last one if you’re at work.) Wolfe nails the power structure that keeps Miami mired in inertia: the political reality that, just as too many cooks can spoil a broth, too many interest groups can stall a city.

coverAs for his exhortation to emphasize the real over the imagined: Wolfe demonstrates his abilities here as well. In a refreshing bit of contemporary insight – and as a contrast to Jonathan Franzen’s improbably technophobic college students in Freedom – the young people in this novel send one another texts, tweets, and “Instagrams” on their iPhones. Real musicians like Pitbull, Shakira, Rihanna, and, hysterically, LMFAO are name-checked. Somebody said to be getting “white boy wasted” (!!!) has “Wild Ones” as their cell’s ring tone. At one point, a police boat is described as “the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding.”

However despite these superficial accuracies, the novel is ultimately tripped up by the banal. Compared to their vibrant setting, Wolfe’s characters and plot details are predictable and flat. We learn scarcely anything about Nestor’s motivations and interests, only that he likes to tinker with cell phone ringtones. Magdalena is an enigma: a college-educated psychiatric nurse who doesn’t know the difference between a “logotherapist” and a “pill therapist,” and who doesn’t understand the words “cutting-edge,” “invests,” “extortionist,” or “penthouse,” yet does somehow know the word “czar.” Some characters are introduced (like Edward Topping’s wife) only to be completely forgotten later on. Almost every male character is a hulking, powerful wall of muscle. Almost every female character is a vivacious Latina in tight clothes. One of them even refers to doing the deed as “giving [the guy] some papaya.” (Ugh.)

What’s worse, though, is that the city Wolfe depicts isn’t the full Miami. It’s instead limited by Wolfe’s own perspective: that of a wealthy, conservative anglo. It was T. D. Allman, author of Miami: City of the Future, who wrote that “practically everything everyone says about [Miami], both good and bad, is true.” But is it still true to depict a Miami with only one African-American character? Is it still true if you set only one scene in Overtown, a black neighborhood once known as “Colored Town” but renamed following the construction of the Dolphin Expressway literally “over” the entire area? (That scene, by the way, takes place in a crack house.) Is it still true if you set the novel during the tail end of hurricane season, but fail to mention any rainfall?

It shouldn’t have to be this way. In other American cities, like Burlington or Austin, residents implore one another to “Keep [City Name] Weird.” In South Florida, these calls would be superfluous. Perhaps it’s the lack of a state income tax, or perhaps it’s to be expected from a state founded by hustlers, degenerates, and outlaws, but this place is a veritable treasure chest of weird. Hell, they eat people’s faces here. They overdose on bugs. They alternately molest and cockblock manatees. Wolfe, who loves realism, should’ve been able to uncover these things and more. He should’ve been able to build his novel on the framework of real weird (real interesting) details instead of on things that could take place anywhere: art forgeries, love triangles, and social apprehension. He should’ve been able to give us the Miami you’d encounter if you actually lived here, not the Miami you’d encounter only if your research consisted of Scarface and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which is surprising because his guides seem like they were totally capable and qualified. Instead, I suspect Wolfe was caught up in the same trap as the writers of Treme. He seems compelled to check off the boxes of Miami sightseeing without ever delving into what created those sights; he seems to favor the granular detail in place of the overarching narrative, the historical context.

Perhaps one reason for this superficiality is the author’s apparent distraction. Distracted by what? Let this series of rhapsodies – off-putting on their own, but doubly so when you think of the “on-the-ground” reporting that went into this book – answer that question:

Wolfe on women in shorts: “‘Attractive’ barely began to describe the way he felt! Such nice tender legs the two girls had! Such short little short shorts! So short, they could shed them just like that. In an instant they could lay bare their juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms!”

Wolfe on women in jeans: “Their jeans hugged their declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice, explored every hill and dale of their lower abdomens, climbed their montes veneris.”

Wolfe on women in bathing suits: “Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis…Tops consisting of two triangles of cloth that hid the nipples but left the rest of the breasts bulging on either side and beckoning, Want more?”

Wolfe on a female stripper: “Her tail is thrust up like a bonobo’s or a chimpanzee’s toward John Smith, offering a full view of the perineum and its forbidden folds, crevices, cracks, clefts, cloven melons, alluring labia, gonophores — the entire fleshy arc.”

The novel’s only actual sex scene: “But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all without a word.”

The phrases “lissome legs” and “lubricous loins” are repeated more times than I cared to count. Some of them even take place on my alma mater’s campus, and I shudder at the thought of Wolfe’s gaze stalking the UC Breezeway. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s disappointing when these bits are so vivid and yet the Miami sun is described as a “big heat lamp in the sky” more than four times.

coverI dislike savage reviews, and I did not set out to write one about this book, which I genuinely looked forward to reading. I remember loving The Pump-House Gang when I read it in high school. To this day I can recall Wolfe’s description of the door to the Playboy Mansion, how its Latin inscription read, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare” (“if you don’t swing, don’t ring”). But now part of me wonders, were I to reread that book, would I enjoy it as much? Is Wolfe’s writing only appealing to young boys – or perhaps older boys with the minds of young boys? Is there really any shame in liking this style of writing, or is it just a matter of personal taste? I cannot say for certain, but I can say that those seeking a deeper understanding or an accurate depiction of the city of Miami would be better-served by books different from this one.

coverAs a starting point, and because when it comes to Miami, truth is better than fiction, I would recommend John Rothchild’s Up For Grabs, a personal memoir as much as a rollicking trip through South Florida’s outrageous history. Rothchild recounts the way the state’s first American settlers evolved from a cavalcade of land and mineral speculators into mobsters, rumrunners, “pot haulers,” escaped Latin American political players and Cocaine Cowboys. This is the book I wanted to read when I started Wolfe’s novel.

I would also recommend, for a more flatly historical perspective, a double shot of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami: The Magic City. Both books cover the geological and human histories that make South Florida and Miami unique. Neither one dwells on its inhabitants’ “declivities.”


Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. My copy arrives tomorrow and I look forward to reading it with great anticipation. Not because of this review by Nick Moran who in his old age wanted Wolfe to write a PC version of Miami (only one Black in the book ) and also obviously has a problem with women being ceremoniously described as sex objects ( Hey, Nick it’s a novel, fiction, not a women’s studies term paper). Ironically Mr. Moran praises “Bonfire” but that brilliant piece of fiction tore into the race problem with gnashing teeth sparing no color, no class. Reread your review Mr. Moran. It’s probably your first insight into the fact that you are getting OLD. And Mr. Wolfe is 81. Irony?

  2. Stewart, it’s not that I wanted a PC version of Miami. It’s that I wanted a realistic version of Miami. This wasn’t it. As to your last point: the idea that “it’s a novel” is a blanket excuse for leering looks at flat female characters is too ridiculous to even discuss.

  3. Mr. Moran, you say you wanted a realistic Miami. I certainly wouldn’t characterize Mr. Wolfe’s previous work as realistic; journalistic in nature, but in style his narratives are outrageous, exaggerated, hyperbolic, and as a result hysterically entertaining. For realism, perhaps those other books you recommend. As to the flat female characters, when I finish the novel (just arrived) I’ll comment on that. But your dislike of Mr. Wolfe’s descriptions of female body parts on prominent display on Miami’s beaches (certainly realistic) sounds personal. Are you suggesting Mr. Wolfe is a misogynist? Perhaps the writing is just in keeping with his hyper-descriptive over the top style? In any case, it’s clear Tom Wolfe did not write the book you would have written.

  4. I welcome your thoughts after you’ve finished the book, then. If you haven’t visited Miami before — or lived in it like I have — you’re likely to come away from it believing that Russian immigrants outnumber black people. That’s not just exaggerated. It’s misleading, and it goes against the setting-realism (as opposed to character-realism) Wolfe says he loves.

    To your second point: I found the repetitive descriptions of female bodies to be unremittingly tiresome; they don’t further the narrative so much as distract you from it. They don’t develop the picture of Miami so much as weigh it down. However to each their own. Do I believe Wolfe is a misogynist? Not necessarily. Do I wish he developed his female characters and portrayed them in a bit of a more realistic, fully-rounded mode? Absolutely. I don’t think that’s an unfair desire for a reader to ask of a professional author, particularly when that author received a seven-figure sum for the book.

  5. Mr. Moran, apropos of our previous comments on Back to Blood, allow me to offer my review of the book. First, having also just reread some of Mr. Wolfe’s non-fiction work (for perspective, notably The Right Stuff) it must be said that it’s my opinion that Mr. Wolfe’s best work is exhibited in his earlier non-fiction and essay writing. When he jumped to fiction with Bonfire his audience expanded, obviously a good thing, and doubly so because it was a great satirical novel. I think Back attempts generally the same thing just substituting Miami for Manhattan. Admittedly I do not know Miami as a local, but I am married to a full blooded Cubana who was my fact checker for things Cuban in the book. In fact her birthplace is Camaguey, mentioned early on and is described culturally very accurately.

    I thought the novel hilarious. The fact that some neighborhoods were not mentioned or the impression is given that there are more Russians than Blacks is beside the point. At 700 pages it’s already a long novel. The characters are exaggerated but not without versimilitude. You are right when you say that it’s central theme is about social climbing from all angles depending on which character is being discussed. I live in So. Calif., also a vanity driven, social climbing culture, albeit not as diversely concentrated. I thought Magdelena was a fully fleshed out female and Nestor was also well drawn. Nestor’s family (according to my wife) is spot on down to the endearing nicknames. The nightclubs and beaches populated with narcissistic show-offs is central to Miami, at least the Miami that non-locals are aware of; much in the same way as Venice Beach here in L.A is. By covering the unique ethnic diversity and events peculiar to Miami (Columbus Day Regatta), Mr Wolfe is presenting a picture of Miami that although not necessarily pictorially complete, is certainly vivid enough to let us know Miami is unique as a metropolis that is also a glimpse of a possible future America. And most importantly he has created an hilarious amalgam of ethnic characters who are self involved, preening, status seekers that sadly remind me of the SoCal culture I live in. Kardashians anyone?

  6. I’m in the same boat regarding Wolfe’s essays and non-fiction as you are, Stewart. We’ll have to agree to disagree regarding White Suit’s latest novel, however. Your point about the parallels to S. Cal (and no doubt some other places in 21st century USA) are well-taken, and I agree with them. Maybe if Wolfe has another novel left in him, he can attempt a West Coast setting next.

  7. Great work, Nick. I do wonder a little bit about what you said here:

    “Wolfe, who loves realism… should’ve been able to build his novel on the framework of real weird (real interesting) details instead of on things that could take place anywhere…”

    It seems like if Wolfe were to have “pulled from the headlines” the weird stuff of Florida–Miami in particular–he’d be dancing in that Hiaasen/genre territory, which already has its own set of problems with stereotype. At the same time, the “art forgeries, love triangles, and social apprehension” don’t seem like choice conflicts to explore when talking about Miami. I guess that’s the nature of the Southernmost Billion-footed Beast.

  8. That’s a good point, Ryan. I’ll admit that I’ve only ever “read” one of Hiaasen’s books, and it was on a beach (when isn’t it?) so my recollection of it is pretty lacking. I think that while too much of “the weird” would’ve segued into caricature, too little of it (as is the case in BTB) leads to an incomplete, indistinct picture. It’s definitely a balancing act.

    Even beyond the oddities that make SoFl so quirky, though, Wolfe’s book doesn’t mention any of the following “everyday” aspects of life in the 305: palmetto bugs, rainfall (seriously! not once!), traffic jams, or nightclubs (save for the briefest of mentions in the prologue). Maybe tempering “the weird” with any of those would make the depiction more successful.

  9. Balancing act is definitely a good way to put it. I wouldn’t recommend any of Hiaasen’s stuff, or any the authors who emulate him. I call that stuff Floridania, like a sub-genre of genre fiction that exploits cliches about Florida. It can be fun, but overall it’s cringe-worthy. Plenty of good literature set in Florida, though, which is why what you say about Back to Blood is a little disappointing. Still, having grown up for 18 years in Miami, I feel compelled to read it, maybe begrudgingly, rain or no rain!

  10. Hi,

    Thank you for this interesting review that I know I’m reading much much later than everyone above! Currently reading the novel -soon to be done, alas- and I am literally addicted to it.

    I enjoyed your opinion as it opened my perspectives as a French woman whose only spent 2 days in Miami in my entire life.

    However, I am not disturbed by Tom Wolfe’s description of women, as I read it keeping in mind the great sense of humor of the author, present throughout the book. I don’t think the author is sleazy, I think he’s emphasizing the way his male characters looks at women!! The way Nes, Sarge and the Chief look at this woman Cat, the way Norman looks at women everywhere, the way men in general look at Magdalena and Ghislaine, etc.

    Anyways, in one word: I LOVE it and recommend this novel to anyone. How modern Tom Wolfe is at 81, it’s impressive.

    Thank you again for your review.

  11. I am glad that I am not a professional critic, because if I were, it would be my job to find fault with the things I read. As a non-professional reader, though, I am free to enjoy the parts of books I like and ignore the aspects I don’t. My feeling about Tom Wolfe is, even “bad” Tom Wolfe is still pretty great. If a writer can make me LOL a few times, if there are some acute, insightful scenes that stay with me a few months even after I have finished reading the book and forgotten the bulk of it, then I am profoundly grateful. There’s a lot to enjoy in Back to Blood and I can say that without any caveat.

    I wish Tom Wolfe would write a Los Angeles novel, but I doubt it will happen now. :(

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