Review of “Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe

“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. So what does that give you? It gives you—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.'”

. . .

try mixing the white, the black, the brown, and the yellow in a place like this! It wouldn’t last one hour! It would explode! Nothing left but blood and sexual debris—

. . .

“You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed. You will see Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons. And that’s where Man is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!”

The main character in the novel is Nestor Camacho, the son of Cuban immigrants and a police man. As with other Wolfe books, the location (in this case Miami) is arguably the main character.

There are four important events in the book, all of which involve Nestor. In all of the events, Nestor does the right thing, but is punished because his actions run afoul of the unwritten race-based rules that govern the city. The first event deals with Cubans, the next two deal with blacks and the last one deals with whites.

After I recap these events, I’ll discuss the main characters: Nestor Camacho, the white hispanic (Wolfe doesn’t use this term, but it perfectly encapsulates what he’s getting at with Nestor – for a lot of reasons, it’s too bad the Trayvon Martin affair happened just before the book was published instead of just afterwards); Magdalena, the sexual marketplace in action; Ghislaine Lantier, the white black; and John Smith, “how much more americano [i.e. white] could you get.”

The book opens as Nestor and several other cops are called to a boat in the bay. Apparently, a (Cuban) man climbed out of the water onto the boat.

After some feats of strength, Nestor manages to save the man from harm, but in the process, the man is apprehended by the police before he sets foot on American soil. Thanks to American immigration policy for Cubans (which several characters in the book refer to as America’s “most-favored migration” policy), this means that the man must be returned to Cuba.

The Cubans in Miami are, of course, furious about this. The Cubans claim that this particular man is the leader of some anti-Castro group, but the government can’t find any references to this group or this man anywhere.

Thanks to some reporting from the Miami Herald Nestor is considered a hero by many people in the community. Unfortunately, the Cubans (including his own family), despise him for his “betrayal” of his countryman.

The second main event happens when Nestor is sent into a housing project to bust a cocaine dealer (black). This particular dealer is a very large, strong man. In a fit of rage, the dealer tries to strangle Nestor’s boss (Cuban). Nestor manages to subdue the guy without killing him.

Again, Nestor is initially a hero. However, when things settled down, Nestor’s boss said something politically incorrect about the guy who had recently tried to kill him and some bystander in the crack house in the projects filmed the end of the incident with his cell phone and put the video on youtube. The crack dealer is let go, because – of course – you can’t arrest someone for dealing crack when the arresting cops are racist.

When it’s discovered that one of the cops said something racist, both cops immediately become “white” in all the press reports and polite conversations, even though they’re both Cuban.

The third event takes place at a largely-black high school. The cops are called in to arrest a (Hispanic) teacher. Supposedly this teacher has attacked a (black) student. The cops have to move through something just sort of riot to get the teacher out and arrest him.

Nestor (with help from Ghislaine) discovers that the student who was attacked by the teacher made up the story. The teacher never attacked the student – the student was the leader of a gang and he made other students support his story.

The fourth event is about art. Miami is, after all, home to one of the most important contemporary art events in the world. Wolfe is never one to pass up making fun of contemporary art and those who seem to actually like it.

An art institute in Miami is named after a wealthy Russian immigrant who donated important works of art to the museum. Apparently, these works were fakes.

John Smith and Nestor (Smith wrote about Nestor in some of previous events and they decided to work on this issue together) uncover the forgeries and find the forger. The forger is killed, but the plot is eventually revealed. Again, they’re heroes, but the reader suspects that there may be a price to pay for making the Miami elite (whites) look like fools for loving the forgeries and naming the museum after the a swindler.

Nestor Camacho

Nestor is probably supposed to be the quintessential Miami resident. He’s Cuban, but he feels American – he can barely speak Spanish. As his actions in and his confusion about the reaction of the Cuban community to the first event demonstrate, he doesn’t feel particularly loyal to Cuba.

Nestor is also the character that let’s Wolfe explain how the Hispanic community in Miami works.

Wolfe notes that, “latino and latina were spanish words that existed only in America.” Cubans consider themselves Cuban, etc.

It would be an overstatement to say that Cuban’s control Miami, but they do control it politically. (Do take a minute to check out the city’s demographics).

Nestor’s family lives in Hialeah. Once, the areas was beautiful. Now, everyone goes outside to water their pavement – they’ve paved over their yards, apparently. As Wolfe can’t help but note at one point, “why didn’t everybody get together and water just one tree?”

When we’re introduced to the people that run the newspaper, we’re assured that paper will celebrate diversity, but we’re also assured that good reporters know “who hated whom and why.” Nestor’s fundamental problem throughout the novel is that he doesn’t understand who hates whom and why.

Nestor never does anything wrong – far from it, he commits one heroic act after another. In the first event, he probably saved a guy’s life. In the second he saved at least one, if not two lives. In the third he saved a guy from jail. In the fourth he discovered a massive fraud.

However, in the first event, he didn’t help a Cuban get onto US soil (though it wasn’t clear how he could have done so had he wanted to). In the second event he was standing pretty close to a guy who said something moderately racist. In the third event, he may have come out ok. However, a reader can’t help but suspect that the public may not look kindly on someone who proves a stereotype correct after the black community had gotten all excited about this particular event going against the stereotypical grain. In the last even, as I said, Nestor made a lot of wealthy people look like assholes.

Magdalena

While American universities may be the best place to explore the “lurid carnival” that is the modern sexual marketplace, but Miami is probably a close second.

Magdalena (hispanic) is the character with which Wolfe explores this topic some more. As the book opens, she’s dating Nestor and working in a psychiatrist’s office.

We quickly come to find out that she’s dating both Nestor and the psychiatrist. She quickly settles on the psychiatrist. Nestor is a strong, physically fit guy, but the doctor is a doctor and he’s about to appear on 60 Minutes! He’ll be talking about his speciality, pornography addiction.

Before long, Magdalena meets the Russian collector (the one that forged the paintings) and trades up immediately from the doctor the Russian. He’s rich!

It’s important – before we get to the rest of the dynamics of the sexual marketplace – to point out that Magdalena acts exactly as game would predict. It’s important because through dating the doctor, Magdalena gets a first hand glimpse into the life of the wealthy (white) in Miami. And she’s appalled by what she sees. Ironically, they’re basically all porn addicts.

The doctor treats patients for pornography addiction. “Treats” is a strong word, since it’s pretty clear that the doctor has little intention of actually helping his patients, particularly one who is very rich (and has a Jewish name, though Wolfe doesn’t mention the religion in this book) and very happy to take the doctor and Magdalena to all sorts of wealthy-only parties.

Wolfe is more than happy to criticize whites as well those of other races. He apparently sees the whites (largely the wealthy) as obsessed with sex, getting absurdly drunk, crappy art, and very weak coffee.

The doctor demands a blowjob from Magdalena while the crew from 60 Minutes waits outside his office door. He takes to a “regatta” off a very exclusive island south of Miami. The regatta is really just an orgy. The contemporary art fair is indistinguishable from a pornography exhibition.

In the end, Magdalena gets used up by the modern sexual marketplace and – one suspects – wishes she’d stayed with Nestor, which brings us to . . .

The Lantiers

Ghislaine is the main character among this group, but I can’t resist adding a few words about the family (black).

The family is from Haiti. Like most countries (other than the US), Haiti has always recognized degrees of blackness.

Ghislaine’s father is a professor, and in one of his inner monologues he notes that, “back in Haiti, no family like his, the Lantiers, even looked at really black Haitians.”

Indeed, but they’re not in Haiti. They’re in American, so they’re black.

(As an aside, there’s generally one character in Wolfe’s novels that recognizes obscure architectural details, disdains other characters wearing jeans below their waists, and notices the prominence of certain obscure muscle groups on certain characters – the Tom Wolfe character in the Tom Wolfe novel, perhaps. In this book, the professor is that character).

To add further insult to the professor’s injury, although he’s a professor of French, he has to teach Creole. His thoughts on this fact are that:

For any university to teach this stupid language was either what Veblen called “conspicuous waste” or one of the endless travesties created by the doctrine of political correctness. It was like instituting courses and hiring faculty to teach the mongrel form of the Mayan language that people up in the mountains of Guatemala spoke—

While his daughter Ghislaine can pass (as white), his son can’t. The professor fell in love with an original art deco house and has poured all his money into it. Unfortunately for him, it’s in a neighborhood with – ahem – bad schools (particularly, the high school mentioned above, which his son attends).

Much to the professor’s chagrin, his son has embraced his blackness. Haitian boys attending school in the US quickly find out that they have no other option if they don’t want to be perpetually beat up. While his father wants his son to speak French,

Antoine [the son] always tried to be cool and speak in perfect Black English, every illiterate, seventy-five-IQ syllable and sound of it. When that was too difficult a linguistic leap, he reverted to Creole. Antoine was one of those black-as-midnight Haitians—

Generally, the blacks in Miami seem to resent the presence of the Cubans. It so happens, in Miami, that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of crime and that a majority of the policemen are Cubans. These leads to some . . . tension. As Wolfe puts it, “the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky, they had materialized so suddenly, for [it seems to this character] the sole purpose of pushing black people around.”

John Smith

Smith isn’t really a main character. At this point, one could write about the editor of the paper or the Russians who play an odd role in the book. I can’t resist writing about Smith though.

In Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe portrayed the press negatively. In Charlotte Simmons, the student that wrote for the college newspaper broke a big story, but he was such a beta that you couldn’t really like the guy. John Smith, then, is the only reporter in a Wolfe novel (that I can think of) that the reader actually likes.

His boss comes in for plenty of criticism – for being elitist, uninterested in events that are actually newsworthy, and unwilling to cross PC boundaries. Smith is basically a good guy who does the right thing. Wolfe repeatedly reminds the reader that Smith is white (John Smith!) and a Yale graduate.

Some of Wolfe’s other novels have bad endings. This one ends with Nestor feeling triumphant for busting the Russian and free the teacher who has been wrongly accused. In his moment of triumph, he calls Ghislaine (not Magdalena, as the reader was suspecting). The book then ends abruptly. Does the sort-of-Cuban-American hit it off with the sort-of-black-American? Does Nestor pay a price for ruining the reputations of everyone with money in Miami? We’re left wondering, if perhaps not optimistic.

Finally, if you’ve read this far, you can see that this book is seemingly designed to beg for bad reviews from most publications. I looked around for other reviews and I can’t find any remotely decent ones. Most places have ignored it, or given it very cursory reviews in which they didn’t really describe the events or the themes. Perhaps, we’re reaching a point where, regardless of how well something is written, it can be ignored if it’s sufficiently un-politically correct.

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21 Responses to Review of “Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe

  1. Brendan says:

    I love Tom Wolfe. He is the main contemporary fiction writer who really “gets it” in my opinion. I mean, look at this — he writes this book, which is largely about race and changing demographics and the attitudes and problems raised by this, on the eve of our most racially polarized election ever. He is on the pulse, he really is.

    The silence of the reviewer community has been deafening really. He pissed off the “literary establishment” years ago with his red-pill-esque truth telling (he calls it as he sees it, and, damn, he sees it really well), and so now they are just waiting for him to die.

    I havent finished B2B yet, but I’m relishing the prose, the characterizations, the humor in it so far.

  2. Red says:

    The PC noose is getting tighter. I’ve watched the show family guy on and off for years. It’s not a great show(very stupid, shallow, vulgar) but it’s very non PC when it comes to protected groups and I enjoy that aspect of it. I watched a bit of a interview with the creators of the show and I realize why they’re able to get away with the non PC bits: Almost everyone running the show is gay. They’ve made a successful not completely PC show because they’re a protected group themselves. I don’t think any new shows like south park or family guy will be allowed in the future. They’re just waiting for the current generation to finish up and then it’s going to be nothing but clubbing you over the head with straight PC propaganda no mater which protected group you belong to.

  3. Handle says:

    Too Fast! I haven’t had a chance to more than barely crack open my own copy or write my own review. If the essence of understanding is accurate prediction, then there is hardly anyone else but Tom Wolfe who understands America’s racial and sexual battlefields, and can articulate them marvelously in literature, and still get mass published because of what he’s built up over a lifetime of achievement.

    When you think “Duke Lacrosse” or “Trayvon Martin” or “Tawana Brawley” or “Hate Hoax”, you think Tom Wolfe. I almost imagine that if the unlikely character had ever occurred to him, Wolfe would have written the Obama Presidency book avant la lettre as a kind of strange sequel to Updike’s “The Coup”.

    And even he can be shut out by the Cathedral (I prefer to call it the Propaganda Community but only because it’s more readily and instantly accessible to the non-initiated.)

    Too bad he’ll be 82 in March. Are there even one or two others in our vast nation who can and will replace him?

  4. Steve Johnson says:

    Coincidentally (or not I suppose) I started reading BtB today. Finished the preface so far and it could quite easily have appeared on any married man game blog.

    It focuses on the newspaper editor and his wife and how he lives in fear of her and how she’d humiliate him in public and he’d have no idea how to deal with it so he placates her with flattery – specifically “flattery” about how she runs his life (he sings “You edit my life” to the tune of “You Light Up My Life”).

    This, of course, doesn’t work so well.

    I’d be shocked if i read further and she wasn’t cheating on him.

    From page 1 of the book Tom Wolfe is scaring the book reviewers with uncomfortable truths that will lead to uncomfortable thoughts for all the men reviewing the book who haven’t already taken the red pill view of women.

  5. Brendan says:

    That’s the thing, though. Wolfe *gets it*. For an 82 year old guy, it’s really amazing how current he has remained in his understandings — it’s the reporter background, probably (and we know he hates reporters from Bonfire).

    Yes, he’s been thoroughly loathed by the Cathedral, but remember he himself started novel writing late. There could very well be other Wolfes in our midst (sorry) who are Gen X types and haven’t written or published yet.

    • Mike in Boston says:

      There could very well be other Wolfes in our midst …who … haven’t written or published yet.

      I hope you are right, but for some reason I think of how Solzhenitsyn, during Stalin’s heyday, was convinced that Russia was chock-full of underground writers like himself, and only much later realized that nope, either they had never started writing or the Gulag had swallowed them. Wolfe was a working journalist back in the sixties. Where among our current journalists could we hope to find a Wolfe or a Solzhenitsyn, more interested in expositing the truth than to serving the System?

    • James says:

      That’s the thing, though. Wolfe *gets it*. For an 82 year old guy, it’s really amazing how current he has remained in his understandings — it’s the reporter background, probably (and we know he hates reporters from Bonfire).

      Tom Wolfe is perceptive about “status”. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

      A good primer on status is to be found in Impro by Keith Johnstone.

      http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/01/23/impro-by-keith-johnstone/

      The theory of status takes up only one chapter of his book, but it is delicious. Robin Hanson provides quotes:

      http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/08/actors-see-status.html#more-19073

      Status-seeking is a major element of human behaviour, and subliminal status motives are at play in most of our interactions. Most folks are but dimly aware of this—Tom Wolfe gets it.

      Consider the famous Life of Brian debate between John Cleese, Michael Palin and two high-status Christians.

      The debate is intriguing, despite the low intellectual quality of the Christians’ contribution, because of the status clash between Cleese and his disputants. Their respective status is granted by quite different institutions, and the winner is not a foregone conclusion.

      Those who get it realise that the response of the audience depends weakly on the rational quality of each party’s argument, and more strongly on tone of voice, body language, verbal wit and successful status-raising or -lowering plays. Cleese’s winning move is at 7.10.

    • Dude says:

      Brendan, how the hell would anyone get through in this publishing climate? Self-publish, independent publishers, that’s fine and all, but to hit the right amount of exposure, that’s something the big publishers can do. Book reviews, marketing, basically treading the mainstream media. Would any young writer be taken seriously or find a suitor if he was, say, Wolfe-esque?

  6. Mann Deville says:

    I don’t usually read novels, but after this review, I think I’ll read this one.

  7. samsonsjawbone says:

    I’m getting this one for Christmas, and I’m determined *not* to read anything about it beforehand for once!

  8. Callowman says:

    Leonard Lopate interviewed him, and it was good, too. Apparently Lennie’s too old to have gotten the hands off memo. I haven’t read your review yet, but look forward to coming back to it after I finish the book.

  9. Toddy cat says:

    Thank’s for the review, Foseti. I don’t read many novels anymore, but I’m going to read this one.

  10. Raymund Eich says:

    Brendan, and Mike in Boston, the explosion of independent publishing, and the ability to avoid the PC New York publishing gatekeepers, means those other Wolfes might already have work on the market. I’m not going to call myself “another Wolfe,” but I have a science fiction novel in which an insurrection is inspired by a religion that views the “ancient” US presidents as saints and refers to the US Constitution as “the greatest truth in the history of humankind, given to JFK and FDR in the sacred halls of Harvard University, and published by them in the New York Times.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Take-Shilling-Raymund-Eich/dp/1475210698/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353003555&sr=8-1&keywords=take+the+shilling

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    The “John Smith” character — a 28-year-old newspaper reporter who dresses more formally than everybody else, has old fashioned polite manners, is a Yale man, and is an unobtrusive but tenacious bulldog at getting the story and getting people to spill their inner thoughts to him — is Wolfe’s portrait of himself at that age. Wolfe is a fanatically proud Virginian and John Smith was the hero who saved the Jamestown colony (c.f., Pocohontas).

    The cameo character Ulrich Strauss, a kindly old gentleman in formal attire who wittily quotes Tom Stoppard on modern art to Magdalena, is the octogenarian Wolfe of the present.

  12. sestamibi says:

    Does the investment firm Pierce & Pierce figure in there somehow, as it does in all of Wolfe’s prior novels?

  13. […] – Pearls of wisdom (thanks to dearieme in the comments). […]

  14. […] Wolfe’s book is particularly interesting, since he wrote about Cuban immigration.  The US essentially has an open border policy with respect to Cuban immigrants. […]

  15. kgaard says:

    Well … I bought Back to Blood but haven’t read it — I just don’t see the point. (Thanks for reviewing it, though.) I feel it’s telling us what we already know. Bonfire of the Vanities seemed to break new ground but since then Wolfe seems to be doing the same schtick over and over. The vanguard of this discussion has moved on. That Nick Land essay on the Dark Enlightenment was amazing, for instance. THAT is where the vanguard is now: i.e. What is the future, what are the options? Drop out? Move to Singapore? Why bother re-hashing these unsolvable racial conflicts? As Derbyshire said, the most logical path seems to be to withdraw and … focus somewhere else.

    Just as a for-instance, I was in Japan twice over the past year and was just blown away both times. It’s a monoracial society and everyone is just so polite and nice it’s incredible. Everyone who goes there seems to have the same reaction. It’s almost miraculous (Japan) and very noteworthy.

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