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Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
February 2013

The latest, greatest (Varoom! Varoom!) Miami novel, and why I can’t read it

I Pix_CultFollowing_2-13can’t do it. I planned to do it. I tried to do it. I told myself I had to do it. But I just can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to pick up Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood.

When it was published this past October, it was supposed to be the definitive Miami novel, or at least the definitive take on contemporary Miami. It was reviewed in virtually every major publication; Wolfe himself was feted at the Miami Book Fair International; and everyone in town said the same thing: “You simply must read it!” (Even if it wasn’t clear they had, or would.)

The novel quickly became, in this event-driven town, another event. Three months later the stakes have been pulled up and the big top is gone. All that remains is the book, all 700 pages of it. And I can’t think of a reason to crack it open.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Wolfe’s work, in particular his contributions to the rise of New Journalism, a style of reporting that utilized the techniques of fiction to arrive at larger truths about the subject at hand, and the culture.

Beginning with groundbreaking magazine features like “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Around the Bend,” about the California custom-car scene, through The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his book-length look at novelist and LSD guru Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and “Radical Chic,” on the complicated marriage between wealthy white liberals and black revolutionaries, Wolfe seemed to have more than a finger on the pulse of America in the 1960s and 1970s. At his best, he not only captured the culture, but skewered it, too, revealing -- and reveling in -- its contradictions.

Then, in the late 1980s, Wolfe took the plunge, crossing over from a cultural observer who utilized novelistic technique to a full-fledged novelist, with The Bonfire of the Vanities, about a New York where excess ruled. That was followed in 1998 by A Man in Full, set in Atlanta, and now Back to Blood. (There was also I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s foray into American college life, but nobody talks about that one anymore.)

The throughline in all three books is the idea of the city as a boiling cauldron of class and racial tension. In Back to Blood, the idea, quoted in reviews, is neatly expressed by Wolfe’s fictional Miami mayor, who tells his police chief: “You got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.” Indeed, the very title of the book refers to the tribalism of the modern metropolis, rooted, in Wolfe’s view, in bloodlines.

And therein lies my problem with Wolfe as novelist. Taken together, his big urban novels can too often seem like the B-movies of the 1940s -- the same story starring the same actors shot on the same lot, only with different backgrounds; just swap out the Empire State Building for the Freedom Tower.

It doesn’t help that Wolfe himself has never voiced much faith in the novel as a form. This is, after all, a man who in October pointedly told New York magazine that nonfiction is the highpoint of 20th-century writing.

Illustrative of this lack of faith is a scene from the documentary Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, which follows Wolfe as he researches Miami for his book. In one scene, the writer is seen studying the location of a particular bridge near downtown.

When asked why he is so fixated on the structure, Wolfe says, essentially, that he wants to get it right, because a novelist “just can’t put a bridge anywhere he wants.” To which one might naturally respond, “Well, if a novelist can’t, who can?” (This inherent tension in Wolfe -- the reporter struggling with the novelist -- is just one of many potentially interesting elements the film fails to unpack.)

Wolfe’s distrust of the novel engenders, for me anyway, a certain distrust of Wolfe as a novelist. And that was before I heard the line about Miami as a place where everybody hates everybody. The concept struck me as hopelessly anachronistic. Everybody hating everybody was Miami in the 1980s. These days, the dominant sentiment, if there is one, is indifference. Like in most big cities. (Call it progress, I suppose.)

All of which explains why I haven’t read Back to Blood, instead using my time to read two other recent novels set in Florida, C.C. Radoff’s satirical The Big Split, about a coming Red State-Blue State civil war, and Thomas Sanchez’s compact, compelling eco-thriller American Tropic, about a serial killer loose in the Keys. I recommend both.

I wouldn’t say Wolfe has lost me as a reader, though. If anything, all the hype over Back to Blood has me itching to revisit his earlier work, when truth, to Wolfe, wielded more power than fiction -- and he didn’t feel the need to pretend otherwise.

 

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