It took cojones for Tom Wolfe to write about Miami for his latest novel, Back to Blood. In the "Republic of Fluba" where Florida, Cuba and the rest of Latin America are shaken and mezclado, truth trumps fiction each day of every year. This is the city where, a few months ago, a man ate another man's face on a downtown causeway in broad daylight. Police shot and killed the wannabe zombie. (For the record, the walking dead are about the only character types that don't appear in Wolfe's novel.)
Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American cop, kick-starts the action in Back to Blood when he's ordered to bring down a Cuban refugee from the top of a schooner's 75-foot foremast. The ship is in easy sight of a nearby bridge, where Cuban-Americans have gathered to demand the refugee be allowed on land and granted political asylum. (Any Cuban who steps on American soil and requests asylum is granted residence. Cubans stopped before stepping on shore almost always get returned to Communist Cuba.) By climbing to the top of the mast and hauling down the man, who claims to be a dissident, Camacho becomes a traitor to the Cuban-American community and is shunned by his family. It didn't matter that it was a spectacular and daring physical feat that likely saved the refugee's life.
The question of immigration and how it reshapes American cities present and future is what motivates Back to Blood. But in addressing that issue, the book preaches and plods. "I mean we can't mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race," the Cuban-American mayor tells the African-American police chief, "and make sure they're all on the same level plane." Yawn.
The book is at its best when Wolfe paints an urban still life: "Industrial lamps high up on stanchions created a dim electro-twilight and turned the palm tree fronds pus-color yellow." He's great when it comes to describing places and things in Miami, but stumbles badly when he writes about actual human beings and their voluble interior monologues. Too often, the characters end up sounding like the author himself. The book is at its very worst when Wolfe writes about Latin women: "Magdalena Otero, corseted into a bustier shoving her all-but-bare breasts into their faces like two big servings of flan!" Exclamation points and sexual descriptions abound in Back to Blood. Both annoy. "He could feel the tumescence men live for welling up inside his Jockey tightey-whiteys! Oh, ineffable dirty girls!"
There are not enough punctuation marks or words in the English language to adequately describe life in Miami. You also need Haitian Creole. Of late, Portuguese helps, too. And there is Spanish, por supuesto. Unlike in other major U.S. cities, Spanish is the language of influence and power in Miami — in business and politics. All of this explains why Wolfe uses Spanish early and often in Back to Blood. What does not make sense is how and why the Spanish language has been manhandled. Jesus Christ gets misspelled two different ways; "Cuban coffee" just once. The list of additional mangled Spanish-language verbs and phrases is long, but not as long as the number of excess pages in the novel.
The book is a 700-page, headlong and disorienting rush of events and characters: the publicity-hungry psychiatrist who treats wealthy porn addicts, a near-orgy at a Columbus Day regatta and a reality show for Masters of the Universe gone bust, among a torrent of other plot points.
It is much too much.
The combined effect is not some panoramic view of Miami's present or a vision of the future of American cities. Instead, it feels like Wolfe pummels readers with image after insight after interior monologue to pound them into submission.
No más, already. Tom Wolfe deserves a better editor. And Miami deserves a better novel.
NPR senior editor Luis Clemens grew up in Miami and loves his hometown.