Atlantic Cities

Does Tom Wolfe Get Miami Right?

Does Tom Wolfe Get Miami Right?
Reuters

Tom Wolfe's new novel Back to Blood comes out today, opening the floodgates for reviews. This time around, the man in the white suit has taken on Miami. But how accurate is Wolfe's depiction of the city? The question is worth asking, since Wolfe has previously championed social realism. His essay for Harper's, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," called upon novelists to tackle the social realities of their day. "If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious," he wrote, "the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain but also seized the high ground of literature itself." Those who've read advance copies of Back to Blood are split on whether Wolfe got the south Florida city right.

"He has apparently grasped Miami more firmly than he could grasp the American university system," concedes The Millions' Nick Moran, apparently not a fan of Wolfe's last offering, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe's Miami has a superficial semblance to the real Miami, Moran argues. But, "The city Wolfe depicts isn’t the full Miami. It’s instead limited by Wolfe’s own perspective: that of a wealthy, conservative anglo."

Not only is it limited by Wolfe's ethnic perspective—it's also lacking the kind of weirdness needed to conjure Miami, in Moran's estimation. "Hell, they eat people’s faces here," he writes. "They overdose on bugs. They alternately molest and cockblock manatees. Wolfe, who loves realism, should’ve been able to uncover these things and more."

Esquire, a magazine that printed some of Wolfe's genre-defining dispatches of New Journalism, thinks the 81-year-old writer has finally shot wide of the mark with Back to Blood. "As sociology, Back to Blood is about as convincing as an undergrad's term paper," Benjamin Alsup writes before enumerating Wolfe's errors:

A) There are no Wasps in Miami. And B) Finding a restaurant in Miami named after a 19th-century French novelist is about as likely as finding a bar in South Boston named Goldstein's. It could happen. But really, it just doesn't. 

Allen Barra thinks Back to Blood's portrayal of the inhabitants of Miami is reductionist. Reviewing the novel for SalonBarra writes:

I don’t know how many notebooks Wolfe filled while on his excursions through Miami’s Haitian and Cuban neighborhoods in his white suit, but from what I read in Back to Blood the only thing he documented is the inner workings of his own mind when confronted with subcultures more exotic than his own.

The Los Angeles Times' book critic David L. Ulin also finds Wolfe's Miami denizens to be flat and condescending: 

Taking place in Miami, a city in which, as he notes, "everybody hates everybody," the book aspires to be a sweeping social novel in the style of The Bonfire of the Vanities, but instead it unfolds as a portrait gallery of noxious personalities, sketched out in the broadest strokes.

Some reviewers think Wolfe totally hit the mark. The Daily Beast's Michael Moynihan says that Wolfe's "energetic and unflinching satire of 'post-racial' America, viewed through the lens of the still-very-racial city of Miami" ends up being "a very good approximation of actual Miami." And the city's crowning newspaper also had a favorable take on the book. The Miami Herald's books editor Connie Ogle writes, "The novel’s pointed observations are dangerously close to reality: Wolfe, Master of the New Journalism Universe, has done his homework and done it well." Ogle calls Wolfe's prose "breathless," "gaudy," and "flamboyant," but says that Back to Blood has much to say about contemporary Miami: "This is a book that yells and screams and sometimes makes you long for peace and quiet, but you won’t be able to ignore it—especially if you live here."

The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani ultimately isn't too concerned with whether the Miami of Back to Blood maps neatly onto the real place. "The novel is content to give us an impressionistic portrait of Miami," she writes. Maybe Wolfe never intended it to be a really real take on the city in the first place. Whether or not Wolfe captured Miami accurately, he certainly made a pretty penny trying. The author was reportedly paid a $7 million advance for this 720-page book that everyone's talking about. As The Washington Post's Ron Charles notes, that evens out to $10,000 per page. That can buy you a pretty nice condo in South Beach.

Top image: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.

David Wagner writes for The Atlantic Wire. All posts »

Join the Discussion