Tom Wolfe long ago declared a preference for the great, teeming, socially panoramic novels of the 19th century — in which a plot of ambition and scandal brings together a rich variety of characters from the overclass, the underclass, and the classes in between — over the novel of internal reflection and exquisite sensibility where what little happens is of great significance for a particular examined life. This preference for Dickens over Virginia Woolf, so to speak, or for Trollope over Henry James, is a very scandalous one, because it is probably shared by most readers. That more or less ensures that it will be viewed with suspicion, if not distaste, by most critics.
Mr. Wolfe, moreover, has compounded this offense of taste by actually writing (by my estimation) at least three great social novels: The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and now Back to Blood. The main character in all of these novels is, of course, America itself, whose energy and disarray provide all the other characters with their dreams and nightmares. Like any other character, however, Tom Wolfe’s America is subject to change and decay, even perhaps to dissolution. And in Back to Blood that ominous possibility is beginning to seem possible.
That in turn creates exaggerated difficulties for Wolfe’s other characters. He has sometimes (and plausibly) argued that status anxiety is the motive force of most social lives. People are moved to act in order to establish their social status, to improve it, or to defend it. Most of the time their actions are ordinary enough — studying at night school, say, or “marrying up” — but sometimes the prospect of social ruin or social triumph drives them to extreme actions, murder for instance, or martyrdom. Whatever the nature of someone’s social anxiety, he will face unusually tangled and baffling difficulties in a society whose splintering standards and broken guideposts no longer give him clear directions on how to behave.
But that is the dilemma facing only some of the players in Back to Blood; others are liberated by the collapse of older standards. For Wolfe’s vision of the America emerging from the chaos of modernity is eerily similar to the Rome of Antiquity before Constantine. Where that antiquity was pre-Christian, this New Antiquity is post-Christian. Its original brand of Protestant Christianity no longer influences the politics, institutions, and laws of the nation it once shaped. The WASP elites, for whom Protestantism was long a mark of respectability and soundness, no longer even pretend to believe. It is a genuine religious faith for only a tiny number of people. Its secular expressions, “American exceptionalism” and “the American Creed,” are in only slightly better shape. The former provoked President Obama into an embarrassed meandering as he sought to reconcile his cosmopolitan disdain for it with its popularity among the rubes; the latter has been redefined into its opposite, an umbrella term covering a multitude of tribes and their different customs, namely multiculturalism.
This transformation from the Great Republic to the New Antiquity has happened in large measure in order to accommodate the growing number of immigrant groups forcing their way into the metropolis. It is a colder and crueler world: Inside the cultural ghettos, the new tribes of post-America retain much of their old affections and loyalties; outside them, they treat others with wariness and distrust. And they are slow to develop a common attachment to their new “home.”
Wolfe touched upon this New Antiquity shaped by immigration in A Man in Full, where he had Conrad Hensley make his way across America on an underground railroad for the undocumented (provided with their documents, naturally) and discover Stoicism as a means of coping. But here he deepens the comparison with ancient times by giving another meaning to multiculturalism as well as its ethnic one. As mainline WASP Christianity shrivels, other cults flourish in its place: the ethnicity cult, of course; the arts cult for the very rich; the sex cult for the young; the celebrity cult for professionals; the psychology cult for billionaire clients; a religion cult (non-traditional religion, of course) for the perplexed; and the cult of wealth for everyone. Only the Gods of the Copybook Headings are missing from this teeming agora through which Wolfe’s characters pursue their fantasies and flee from their anxieties. It is a world of fear, superstition, and constant insecurity as people try to adapt to the new, always shifting social reality.
Nestor Camacho is a Cuban-American cop whose status anxiety derives from the fact that he is the lone Cuban in the maritime department of the Miami police. Nestor is brave and good, as we quickly realize, and he also proves to be the wise counselor that his name suggests. Initially, however, it is he who needs counseling. His troubles arise when, from a sense of duty but also to win the approval of his fellow cops, Nestor performs an astounding physical feat in the course of rescuing a would-be Cuban immigrant from death. This rescue, however, also prevents the refugee from setting foot on land and thus from winning asylum. To the cops he is now a credit to his profession; to the Cuban community he is a traitor to his race. Even his own family shuns him. At this low point in his fortunes, but coincidentally, Nestor’s girlfriend, Magdalena, leaves him to become the mistress of a would-be-famous psychiatrist, Norman Lewis, who specializes in treating sex-addiction cases among the very rich.
Magdalena is fundamentally a decent girl, but she is foolishly in thrall to celebrity and to Norman’s near-fame, and Norman, though a priest in the psychiatry cult, is a secret worshiper in the cult of sex. His real faith emerges when he takes Magdalena to what starts as a regatta for young WASP kids but ends up as a large open-air orgy by the sea. Disgusted by the evident fact that Norman wants her to take part in these festivities, she decides to transfer her affections elsewhere. Soon, a glamorous Russian billionaire and art collector, Sergei Korolyov, wanders into view at a cocktail party, and asks her for her telephone number.
We already know a great deal about Sergei from the other characters. Edward T. Topping IV, the understandably insecure WASP editor of the Miami Herald and a minor deacon in the cult of art, regards him with nervous awe as a public and private benefactor. Topping had smiled complicitly from the head table on behalf of his newspaper when Korolyov donated billions of dollars’ worth of hitherto unknown paintings by masters of modern art to a new museum bearing the billionaire’s name. It was the high point of his editorship so far. But Topping’s ace investigative reporter, John Smith, also a WASP, is less starry-eyed about the Russian. Smith is a devotee in the temple of truth (a real, if inadequate, deity) and takes his religion seriously. He knows Korolyov to be a Russian mafioso with terrible crimes to his credit. He also suspects him of having the promised art treasures forged by an émigré Russian painter as part of an elaborate fraud that Smith can’t quite make out. In order to solve the puzzle, Smith seeks out Nestor — now famous owing to his acrobatic exploit on the patrol boat — to find the painter/forger and expose the mafioso.
Nestor, meanwhile, is on a roll. Taking part in a police raid on a drug den, he overpowers a huge and brutal crack dealer under the admiring eyes of Ghislaine Lantier, a beautiful Haitian girl of good family who is present in the crack house looking after neglected children on behalf of a fashionable charity, South Beach Outreach. Impressed by Nestor’s bravery, and his kindness to her, Ghislaine seeks his help to prevent her foolish but harmless young brother from being convicted of a serious crime. He succeeds in that, reinforcing Ghislaine’s admiration, and also in tracking down, with John Smith, the Russian painter and his forgeries.
That leads to a front-page story on Korolyov, which, unfortunately for Magdalena, appears in the early morning of the night on which she has slept with him. Korolyov dismisses her fairly brusquely (as if, she reflects, taking out the garbage), pauses briefly to arrange to have the painter murdered, and then takes off in his private plane back to Mother Russia. His scheme to use the prestige of his museum donations as the basis for selling other fake masterpieces to dealers for billions is now in ruins. Magdalena, who has seen her status soaring heavenwards, now looks at herself in a new, harsh, and glaring light, literally so in the oligarch’s bathroom, and also metaphorically, as someone exposed as a cheap whore. She now thinks fondly of Nestor and their happy times together. But Nestor is basking in the admiration of his fellow cops again, along with John Smith, and also in Ghislaine’s smiles. Who will Nestor end up with . . . but I will leave you in suspense on that.
Wolfe’s characters, driven by status, are for the most part seeking to rise in a slippery world and getting into difficulties as a result. There are exceptions, interesting ones: Ghislaine is anxious not for herself but only for her young brother, who is so desperately prey to status anxiety that he is almost drawn to crime and self-destruction by the desire to be accepted in the ethnic-gang subworld of Miami kids. She is admirable in her uncomplicated goodness, also perhaps a little unrealistic. Korolyov, an intelligent criminal, thinks status comes out of the barrel of a gun. Other people’s status is something to be manipulated, as he successfully manipulates Topping, in order to advance his criminal interests. He is, alas, a very realistic picture of evil. John Smith is a WASP who has found in journalism a respectable way of upholding WASP ideals in this treacherous New Antiquity. Like his colonial namesake, he survives amid other tribes by wit and coolness.
Topping suffers most from status fears. He is like an officer in a long, losing war — the WASP in gradual retreat before the new post-American tribes. Inevitably, he cuts a somewhat pathetic figure. But he has learned a thing or two in the campaigns, and Wolfe allows him a final flourish of deceptive leadership as he boldly oversees the Korolyov exposé he has been quietly obstructing. Magdalena is, as her name suggests, a good girl gone bad who will now make good again. She will no longer be deceived by sex, celebrity, or power. Like her namesakes, she is the sadder but wiser girl.
And Nestor — well, Nestor was never pursuing a higher status, he was defending a decent status he had chosen on other (decent) grounds. Nestor has an internal moral compass and, given that, he will navigate his way through the ethnic suspicions of Miami and its various worlds. And Nestor, like Smith, is brave — which in Wolfe is always the key to someone’s worth.
As always, Wolfe is a very entertaining read. The book has great set pieces — the seaside orgy, the strip club, the drug raid, the editorial debate over whether to run the exposé of Korolyov. It tells sad but rumbustious truths about modern America; in describing Miami, it explains the Boston bombers.
Only one mystery remains: One sour critic said that Wolfe was writing less about Miami than about himself. What on earth must he think Wolfe is like?