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.