Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood,Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 720 pp., $30.00.
Tom Wolfe has never been noted for subtlety.
Just 22 pages into his latest novel, Back to Blood, one of his characters says:
Everybody still has to believe in something . . . so that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere have but one last thing on their minds—Back to Blood!
In this book, the Man in White is in good form, focusing on the familiar themes of race, sex, and ambition in the midst of a crumbling civilization. As a work of journalism, it is a triumph, and mostly a confirmation of what race realists have been arguing for decades. As a work of literature, it is an enjoyable read but sometimes fails to transcend. Like hearing an old friend reminisce about days gone by, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, but we’ve heard it all before.
In Back to Blood, Mr. Wolfe takes on Miami, Florida, the “Capital of Latin America.” In 2009, Hispanics were furious when Congressman Tom Tancredo called Miami a “Third World Country,” but Mr. Wolfe confirms Mr. Tancredo’s charge, and says what we all know: Miami is not part of the United States. When two of the characters drive out of the city into Broward County, one bursts out, “This is really strange! And do you know why? We’ve just entered a strange land . . . called America! We’re not in Miami anymore.” (p. 503)
The city’s fictional mayor explains:
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 immigrant . . . if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.” (424)
The Haitians against the Cubans against the Americanos, Miami is sustained by a fragile peace among the tribes, and there have to be sacrifices to maintain that peace.
One sacrificial victim is the book’s hero, Nestor Camacho, a young second-generation Cuban and a proud member of the Marine Patrol of the Miami police. Nestor is conscious of his identity as a Cuban, but like many younger Cubans, he speaks better English than Spanish. After all, the major waves in technology, pop culture, and fashion are all in English, the language of the larger, wealthier world. He lives with his family in Hialeah, in an insular Cuban neighborhood that is ethnically and culturally separate from the United States and even from the city of Miami.
While on patrol, Camacho is ordered to catch a Cuban refugee who has climbed to the top of a boat while trying to sneak into the country. In a remarkable feat of strength, Officer Camacho climbs a rope, detains the suspect, and climbs back down using only his arms—all in full view of a crowd watching from a bridge. While his fellow officers and the English-speaking media hail him as a hero, the Spanish media and Cuban community denounce him as a traidor for stopping a refugee. Even before he comes down the rope he is getting texts from people he doesn’t even know, calling him a latingo (a Latino who has become a gringo). Diversity means that people viewing the very same event interpret it in radically different ways.
Republicans who crow about “naturally conservative” Hispanics—and especially Cubans—would do well to read Mr. Wolfe’s description of this supposedly “right wing” Latino tribe. If assimilation could work with any Latinos, if would be Cuban exiles. Cubans, and Cubans alone, get automatic legal status once they reach American soil, and are sent back only if they are caught at sea. As Hispanics, they are eligible for affirmative action privileges in jobs, education, and other fields. Finally, the Cuban exile community is perhaps the second most influential foreign policy lobby in the United States. The Cuban American National Foundation has had federal funding, and the American government is a stubborn opponent of the Castro regime. Cuban politicians such as Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez have achieved positions of national influence in both major parties.
Nonetheless, Mr. Wolfe shows that Cuban-“Americans” still regard America and real Americans with suspicion and disgust. The Americanos are always “they,” and the Cuban tribe demands loyalty. A distant relative lectures Nestor at a family party: “Technically they had the right to do what they did, but I don’t see how you ever—ever—let them use you as their tool. How could you?” (137) Nestor’s own father accuses him of disgracing the Camacho name forever. The Cuban mayor, whose job it is to navigate the mutual hatreds of the warring tribes, demands Nestor Camacho be all but banished before the black police chief stands up for him.
A comically WASP reporter named John Smith helps Camacho, writing a supportive article, and lets him vent about his family’s betrayal. He even takes him home for a place to sleep when a heartbroken Camacho gets too drunk to drive. Still, the two form more of a mutual assistance pact than a friendship. Camacho uses his police contacts to help the reporter research a story about a Russian oligarch who may have donated forged paintings to the Miami museum. Camacho is grateful, but he can’t help but resent the WASP—“the Americano stood there dressed so Americano, it was annoying.” (218)
Adding to Nestor’s woes, he is unceremoniously dumped, for unrelated reasons, by his girlfriend and fellow Cuban, Magdalena. Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse who simply considers Nestor “a nice Hialeah boy,” is dating her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis. Dr. Lewis is a minor celebrity who treats pornography addiction, and skillfully exploits one of his wealthy clients and a command performance on 60 Minutes to become a social climber. Magdalena considers him “her Americano prince” and loves his “blue eyes . . . wavy brownish hair—[though] she preferred to think of it as blond.” (153) She sees him as her ticket out of insular Hialeah.
It is gradually revealed that Dr. Lewis doesn’t just treat pornography addiction; he’s a kind of sexual addict himself. He tries to force sexual encounters on Magdalena in awkward situations and even in public. He also leverages his celebrity for sordid ends, when he talks his way aboard a yacht party with a group of wealthy white twenty-somethings. Surrounded by blaring pop music, pornography projected onto the sails, and public sex, Magdalena is disgusted by these lust-crazed Americano animals.
Fed up with her former prince, Magdalena finds herself attracted to Sergei Korolyov, a wealthy, blue-eyed, square-jawed Russian who oozes command and presence. She breaks up with Norman Lewis, who loses control, shrieking “bitch!” and physically attacking her. Korolyov takes her out to Sunny Isles, the “Little Moscow” of Miami, another place beyond the United States, where tacky Russians millionaires mock Americans and their pornography addictions.
While Magdalena is climbing the social ladder, Nestor finds himself in another mess. During a bust at a crack house, he subdues a much larger black man who had almost killed Nestor’s partner. This leads to another wave of celebrity for the short but immensely strong police officer—until one of the blacks posts a video he took of the event on YouTube. Stripped of context, it only shows Nestor taunting the defeated criminal, and his partner calling him a jigaboo.
The video goes viral, the usual people shriek about racism, and both officers are immediately put on leave. Once again, the black police chief, who understands the pressures on street cops, fights to keep them from being thrown to the wolves as the mayor wants.
Nestor is at loose ends, but does two things that may yet resurrect him from death by political correctness. The first involves a light-skinned Haitian woman named Ghislaine, a social work volunteer he met during the crack-house bust. She and her father have cultivated tastes, but her brother Philippe is aping the black American gangsta culture, trying to live down his light skin through thuggish behavior.
Philippe attends a disorderly public school, where a teacher has been arrested for assaulting a student. In fact, a black student attacked the teacher and then bullied other blacks into lying or simply not snitching. Ghislaine asks Nestor for help, and he sets in motion a process to make the would-be gangstas recant, saving the teacher from an unjust prison sentence.
Nestor also helps his old supporter John Smith solve the mystery of the forged art. They discover that the museum pieces are skillful fakes, and that the Russian mastermind behind the forgeries is, indeed, Magdalena’s date, Sergei Korolyov.
In the story’s climax, John Smith writes an article about the person he suspects is the forger. This has the intended effect of flushing out Sergei, who reacts with rage when he sees the forger’s name in print. Magdalena tumbles to the fact that her boyfriend is a criminal and asks for Nestor’s help to get out of his clutches.
The forger dies in a mysterious “accident.” John Smith writes a carefully worded article that points the finger at once-leading citizen Sergei Korolyo, who flees the country. With Nestor’s help, John Smith has achieved his journalistic coup.
Meanwhile, the police chief stands up for Nestor Camacho and puts him back on the force despite the mayor’s furious objections. An overjoyed Camacho calls Ghislaine to tell her the good news that he’s a real cop again, and it is implied they will be dating soon. Against all odds, Nestor Camacho gets a happy ending.
While Mr. Wolfe skillfully draws the fault lines of a city at war with itself, his title is misleading because many of the main characters are not reverting to blood, but trying to escape from it. Nestor had no desire to abandon his family and community, but was unceremoniously expelled just for doing his job. He doesn’t feel like a traidor; his primary identity is clearly that of a cop. His new girlfriend at the end of the story isn’t a Cubana, but a light-skinned Haitian. As for Ghislaine herself, she isn’t some paragon of Haitian pride; she and her father define themselves as primarily French. Her little brother is not so much Haitian as a generic black thug, looking for an identity. As Ghislaine puts it, “Right now he wants to be a Neg, a black Haitian . . . and they want to be like American black gangbangers, and I don’t know what American black gangbangers want to be like.” (385) Magdalena suffers a sad but appropriate fate because in her eagerness to get away from her stifling neighborhood, she threw away Nestor Camacho, a “good Hialeah boy” who manages, by the end of the book, to become a local celebrity.
The diversity of Miami is not a primordial force calling people back to their roots but an annoying obstacle. No one can get anything done, and every social interaction is a thinly veiled race war. This is most clearly portrayed at the top of the power structure. The Cuban Mayor, Dionisio Cruz, is always happy to slaughter those below him in the name of racial sensitivity. He seems to have great contempt for the people he ostensibly represents, considering them little better than animals, always on the verge of rioting. He bluntly tells the black police chief, “You know very well that one of the main reasons you were made chief was that we thought you were the man to keep the peace with all these—uh uhhh—communities. So you think I’m gonna stand by and let you now turn racial friction into a goddamn conflagration on my watch?” (618)
The black police chief is also torn between his convictions and his role as a tribal leader. He is intensely aware that he is the African-American link to “the Power.” He knows his black face is the reason he got his job and if he is unable to keep blacks from rioting, he will lose it. Constantly pushing out his massive chest and trying to out-alpha everyone around him, it’s easy to see him as a caricature of the exaggerated masculinity of the insecure black male.
However, he also has some real understanding of his position. Though conscious of discrimination he faced when he was younger, he is well aware of the hypersensitivity about race today. “The ‘African-American community’ was the currently enlightened phrase, and white folks uttered it like they were walking across a bed of exploded light-bulb shards,” he observes. He stands up for his officers even in the face of political correctness, telling the mayor that “the difference between you and me is that you are incapable of thinking about anything other than what the whole city thinks of Dio [you, Dionisio]. Why don’t you try going into a small quiet room and thinking about right and wrong. . . . I bet some of it will come back to you.” (619)
The book’s main theme is the cost of diversity. Nestor is simply doing his duty, but his life is almost ruined because people could die in ethnic riots if he isn’t sacrificed. A teacher’s life is almost destroyed and a Haitian family is almost broken apart because a young pale-skinned mulatto has to feel authentically black by acting like a criminal. A black police chief has to decide between being a good cop and standing up for his men or posturing on behalf of his race. All relationships, whether between John and Nestor, Magdalena and Norman, the chief and the mayor, are colored by racial resentment. Instead of transcending race, a diverse environment forces people to interact as types rather than as human beings. Even when characters like Nestor or Magdalena want to escape their station, they can’t help but see the world through the eyes of their tribe. It’s back to blood after all, whether we want it or not.
A secondary theme is the end of white America, as seen through the eyes of the minor character Edward Topping IV, editor of the Miami Herald. Topping IV is a status-conscious Yalie and a powerful man, but he is always afraid. He is afraid of his domineering wife, he is intimidated by fiery Latinos, and more than anything, he is terrified of being called a racist. When his wife gets into a shrieking argument over a parking space with a Latina, he can see the headlines: “ ‘Herald Editor’s Wife in Racist Rant’—he could write the whole thing himself.” (18) When his wife tells the cursing Hispanic, “You’re in America now!” she responds with the knockout punch, “No, mia malhablada puta gorda, [you foul-mouthed fat whore] we een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Topping understands this. He knows he may be rich and influential, but only if he does exactly what is expected. He desperately wants John Smith to abandon his journalistic crusade about the fake art because he is afraid it could lead to a defamation law suit. He groans inwardly at the mutilations PC imposes on the English language, but is eager to lead an anti-racist crusade if it will sell newspapers. He interprets his job this way: “If the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.” (11) The thin crust of Americanos in Miami cling to their status only by surrendering their integrity. It is Topping who realizes it’s “back to blood,” but lacks the courage to go back to his own blood.
This book has been criticized for “racial insensitivity” but if anyone is portrayed unflatteringly it is the whites. They are a combination of physical weakness, moral cowardice, and sexual failure. Only WASP archetype John Smith is effective, although he is shy around women, nervous in the presence of physical strength, politically correct, and capable of combat only through the weapon of the media. Though the Russians have their own tribal identity and strength, they are gangsters and frauds. While blacks are thugs and Cubans are superstitious and xenophobic, as groups they have a certain integrity. Whites are a weak joke.
A third theme is the battle for status and the illusion of power. This drives the actions of most of the characters in the novel, especially the most dishonorable ones. Magdalena thinks she can date her way out of her neighborhood, Dr. Lewis tries to make himself a celebrity by acting larger than he is, Edward Topping IV clings to residual WASP privilege, and Sergei’s fraud is driven by the desire to move from oligarch to civic leader. All are pretending to be something they are not, and none really gets what he wants. The black police chief acts honorably, but even his defense of Nestor is partially driven by his desire to “beat” the Cuban mayor, not just loyalty to his men.
Nestor, though bumbling and naive, acts with integrity and ends with his reputation and job restored, and a new and better woman. Mr. Wolfe is suggesting that especially in an age driven by media and public relations, a person with integrity will ultimately triumph over the schemes of social climbers and media manipulators. This is an unusually idealistic theme for Mr. Wolfe, given his cynical portrait of the splendors of American diversity.
However, in the absence of social trust or even a real society, characters who actually aren’t out to manipulate or deceive enjoy a certain advantage. John Smith, Nestor Camacho, and Ghislaine share the fundamentally simple motivations of doing their jobs well and helping people they care about. Perhaps for that reason, they succeed where others fail because the power structure has become so complicated that it’s almost impossible for even the most subtle schemer and social climber to navigate it.
Certainly, Mr. Wolfe is telling us that the most seemingly powerful men may be phonies like the Wizard of Oz, while history is made by people on the ground. The mayor of Miami seems less a civic leader than a desperate man trying to keep the lid on a kettle before it blows. Who really is leading Miami? Is anyone?
A final message is the perversion of masculinity and sexual desire. Again, Nestor, though flirtatious to waitresses and the like, is essentially restrained when it comes to women. When he is dumped, he reacts with hurt and anger rather that attacking Magdalena as Norman Lewis does. Nestor’s motivations are essentially pure—he cared about Magdalena. In contrast, many of the other men throughout the novel—especially the whites—are perverts driven by lust. Norman Lewis has succumbed to the disease he was supposed to treat, Sergei treats women as disposable, and whites in general are driven to frenzy by a combination of the sexual beat of pop music, collapsing social mores, and rampant pornography.
Mr. Wolfe does not blame this on individual characters but on the larger society, suggesting that America is approaching a kind of sexual frenzy, tempting men with ever more carnality until restraint is all but impossible. Whites in particular substitute ever more decadent sexual behavior for the tribal solidarity and masculine aggression that is forbidden to them.
Women also do not get off the hook. Edward Topping IV’s wife is a feminist horror, a shrewish and domineering Yalie (of course), who constantly berates and emasculates her husband. Meanwhile, Magdalena uses sex as a weapon. She is promiscuous and deceptive, simultaneously sleeping with Dr. Lewis and Nestor at the beginning of the novel, presumably without either knowing about the other. She schemes to be alone with Sergei even while she is still seeing Lewis. She sees her sexuality as a way to bolster her career and social status, and uses it to step over the men in her life. She is young and confused, and uses people as means rather than ends, just as Lewis does. She never realizes what she is doing and gets exactly what she deserves when Sergei uses her only for her body.
Again, Mr. Wolfe responds with an old fashioned, idealistic message in his counterexample. The healthiest relationship in the book is between Nestor Camacho and Ghislaine. While Nestor is clearly attracted to her and fantasizes about her legs, he restrains himself and controls the sexual tension. Though he is simply helping out her family, their relationship actually proceeds as a kind of courtship, yet to be consummated. Significantly, Mr. Wolfe ends the book with Ghislaine genuinely happy that Nestor has met with good fortune. Mr. Wolfe suggests that even in the filth of modernity, an old-fashioned approach actually works best and the emerging relationship has a strong foundation.
Criticism and conclusion
Tom Wolfe is 82 years old and may be reading his old-fashioned values into the story more than is justified. While it is exciting—especially for race realists—that a prominent author is honestly discussing race, culture, and ethnicity, Mr. Wolfe is begging the question when it comes to what drives anti-white animus and multiculturalism. He is also unduly optimistic about assimilation and the relationship of non-whites to America.
Mr. Wolfe portrays multiculturalism purely as a cynical game. Edward Topping IV seems to regard PC as a joke. He is scared of it to be sure, but he doesn’t actually believe in it. Meanwhile, his liberal wife screams at someone to speak English. Even John Smith notes that having left Miami, he is now “in America.”
This does not ring true. While many whites are afraid to discuss race honestly, many others believe in diversity and racial egalitarianism. They block out facts and experiences that contradict their ideological predispositions just as a religious zealot would. A liberal woman from Yale would not be angry that someone didn’t speak English—she’d think it was wonderful. A liberal newspaperman wouldn’t think PC was a game but a stern, righteous code to be enforced on unbelievers. Cosmopolitan progressives would not think Miami was “foreign”—they would think of the Florida populated by Southern whites as an evil, foreign, scary, and racist place.
Mr. Wolfe is correct to interpret progressive racial attitudes as status symbols, but misses their essential character. Progressive whites are conscious of other whites, but they truly hate, despise, and fear racially conscious whites as the “other.” Non-whites are not “others” to be feared, but victims to be cherished and supported, even if it hurts white interests.
While racial liberals are guilty of plenty of hypocrisy about where they choose to live, eat, or send their children to school, most honestly believe they surround themselves with people like themselves for non-racial reasons. Unlike Edward Topping IV, racial progressives are less interested in policing their own thoughts for signs of racism than policing other people. After all, the basic conviction of white racial progressives is that they are still in charge, that they are the only historical actors who matter, and that non-whites are essentially passive recipients of their altruism.
A second major criticism is that Mr. Wolfe seems to think that non-white racial loyalty is a product of the underclass that is abandoned once non-whites “assimilate” into white American culture. His second-generation Cubans don’t speak Spanish, his black police chief is a cop first and a black man second, and his Cuban mayor is always in terror of riots by one racial proletariat or another. Actually, the American higher education system, such as it is, ensures that non-white racial loyalty tends to increase with social status. A key example would be Michelle Obama, who after her affirmative-action admission to Princeton wrote her thesis on how racist everything is, became a professional diversity consultant, and only became “proud of her country” after it elected her husband President.
Social status and education let non-whites learn about white privilege, the history of white wickedness, and the vocabulary by which they can “deconstruct” their oppression. Just as the privileged Cuban community is still tribalist and “outside” the American identity, so does the average privileged black or Hispanic think he is opposed to the hated white power structure. After all, we have Oscar-winning actors joking on national television about how great it is that they get to kill all the white people in a movie—and well-trained and domesticated white people applaud.
In a more realistic depiction, Magdalena might date rich whites but would be far more willing to use race rather than sex as a weapon in a confrontation, especially with image-conscious characters like Norman Lewis. The black police chief, like Chief Moose of Washington DC, would use his position to fight white “racism” rather than protect his officers, with whites left to rely only on their union. Nestor Camacho would not have a chance. Finally, light-skinned blacks like Ghislaine’s father would be less likely to reinvent themselves as French and more likely to become racially conscious blacks along the lines of Jeremiah Wright.
Where Mr. Wolfe gets it right is in his portrayal of a city constantly on the edge. As the nation increasingly looks like the Third-World metropolis in South Florida, the social system frays. Every police arrest in a minority neighborhood, every political appointment, and every social encounter where there is a danger of a verbal slip can cause a media frenzy. Diversity means a constant feeling of being on edge, of not being able to take common sense for granted, and for whites, being on the verge of professional destruction because of circumstances over which they have no control.
Mr. Wolfe has given us an excellent picture of the society that diversity and “tolerance” have given us, “where everyone hates everyone else” and government looks more like mutually assured destruction than efficient administration. Where he gets it wrong is in thinking that the poison of diversity is simply an annoyance that can be avoided. It has penetrated everything, at every social level, and no one is exempt from it.
Mr. Wolfe’s age, experience, and reputation mean he can see and say things that no one else can. Unfortunately, it also means he might not able to go far enough. Diversity is not as bad as it is portrayed in Back to Blood. It’s worse.