Tom Wolfe’s new novel, “Back to Blood,” is about Miami, and the characters run his usual gamut of social classes:
Nestor Camacho, a muscle-bound cop from a lower-middle- class family of Cuban immigrants.
Magdalena Otero, his voluptuous ex-girlfriend, a nurse from the same background.
Norman Lewis, Magdalena’s employer and lover, a psychiatrist famous enough to be interviewed on “60 Minutes” and a relentless social climber.
Maurice Fleischmann, a pornography-addicted patient of Norman’s and, as a local billionaire, Norman’s entree to the upper echelons of Miami society.
The only one of these characters the author has any affection for is Nestor, an insecure bruiser bound by the code of manliness. Wolfe admires that code, as he expressed most fully when writing about the early astronauts in “The Right Stuff” in 1979.
The rest, when they aren’t outright losers, are egomaniacs, turf protectors and, above all, status seekers -- for Wolfe, the most soul-corroding vanity of them all, as well as his eternal subject. The rabid pursuit of status is what makes the climbing shrink Norman, whom we see through Magdalena’s loathing eyes, the worst of the book’s obnoxious characters.
Norman’s billionaire patient Maurice has been so useful in securing him the most coveted perks of Miami high society (a boat slip on exclusive Fisher Island, even though he isn’t a resident; entry with the super-elite first buyers to Art Basel Miami Beach, despite his lower income) that Norman has strung him along without trying to cure him.
In his chapter on the art fair, “The Super Bowl of the Art World,” Wolfe describes “billionaires and countless nine-digit millionaires ... squirming like maggots” to get in first and one-up their peers by snapping up the hottest pieces.
Contemporary art is an old target for him. He mounted his major assault back in 1975, in “The Painted Word,” so his outrage at art-world charlatanism is hardly new (or fresh) -- though I have to admit that his description of an obscene performance-art piece got me to laugh out loud.
Magdalena is a climber, too: She’s sleeping her way up the wealth ladder, beginning but not finishing with Norman. Wolfe makes his view of her (which is also her view of herself) explicit in a chapter he titles “The Whore.”
The fate he’s prepared for her he announces in two more, “Humiliation One” and “Humiliation, Too.” Wolfe rivals T.C. Boyle in his zeal for publicly shaming his creations, but as a misogynist he’s in a class of his own.
His characters are shallow in a double sense: They have no moral depth, and they have no psychological depth that might explain their lack of moral depth. He has fun hating them (a lot more than I did), but his contempt seems dubious, since they so completely share his values.
Like him, they see everyone and everything through the prism of status. Of course, the much-awarded, best-selling Wolfe has status to burn, at least in terms of worldly success. (Critical favor has been slipping for a long time now.) So is it really status seeking he despises? Or does he just enjoy sneering down from the top of the heap?
“Back to Blood” is published by Little, Brown (MMB) in the U.S. and Cape in the U.K. (704 pages, $30, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on theater and Richard Vines on dining.
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