Tom Wolfe may never get his historical due for his continuing refusal to get with the program. Today's fiction market is overwhelmingly aimed at women, who make up as much as 80 percent of the market. Tom Wolfe is a man writing often about a taboo subject - manhood. Maybe that's why this book has sold so poorly, and why I didn't even hear about it until more than a year after its publication.
Hopefully, one day, people will recognize he is our time's Charles Dickens, whose voluminous works chronicle a certain era like none other. Wolfe has never stopped being a journalist. Novels provide a less controversial medium for him to use his stream of consciousness technique for his characters; used in non-fiction, it left its author open to attack: `How do you know what Gus Grissom was thinking?' Whether in fiction or non-fiction, though his technique always has had a certain credibility because of the depth of his research and his insight into human nature - his ability to see people as Everyman, acknowledge how the world looks from Everyman's eyes, and sense how Everyman gets through his day.
Wolfe's characters have a certain flatness to them, but it's a graphic-novel flatness, rich in detail, exaggerations intended. While spending an enormous amount of time inside their heads, he devotes little time to their back stories, a rebellion against a Freudian view of the human condition. Wolfe's characters don't dwell on yesterday, their childhoods, or long ago. They're not deeply conflicted. They are hard-working folks making their way up in life, people from small-town or working-class backgrounds confronted with the foibles and pretensions of modern life, executives with big mortgages and kids in private schools who worry about losing it all if they make the wrong move. They don't see psychiatrists.
What they think about is the intense experience of Now: What they've got to do today. How it will help them climb the ladder or bolster their position on it. Who they're in love with, or in heat for. What it looks like out in the street or at the chic restaurant or hot soiree or dingy crack house - right now, in riotous detail. If today goes right, they feel good. If not, they feel lousy.
There's much here familiar from previous books. Wolfe remains fascinated with art, design and fashion, of course: what status it conveys, what it connotes and to whom. There's his sense that we're preoccupied with the race, class, sex or walk of life we come from - in Miami, the Cubans, the blacks, the Haitians, the Russians, Miami's vanishing tribe of WASPs, and more - and he's determined to set it forth as exactly and convincingly as he can. A racial incident hyped by the media knocks a character for a loop, as in "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full". His over-the-top writing style, with its sound effects and run-on sentences and orgies of gorgeous words, is, if anything, amplified in this book from previous ones. (Some expressions like "buttery jowls" and "loamy loins" seem like old friends now.) He focuses on male strength and manhood, often symbolized by the strength of a man's hands, to do work (Charlotte Simmons' father), protect himself (Conrad Hensley in "A Man in Full") or commit some manly act of courage.
That last type of incident kicks off this book. It focuses on two Cuban-American characters in Miami: young police officer Nestor Camacho, and his estranged girlfriend Magdalena Otero. Many names in this book can be mined productively: the macho Camacho; Otero the "other", witness to but not part of the alien and decadent lives of the rich; the egotistical Cuban mayor Dio who thinks he's God.
Nestor commits a startling act of heroism and strentgh, rescuing a panicked refugee from the top of a sailing mast. Televised, he becomes a momentary hero but a pariah in the Cuban community for stymieing a fellow refugee's flight to freedom.
Magdalena meanwhile ditches him for unrelated reasons. A nurse, she's taken up with her boss, a wealthy, celebrity psychiatrist whose specialty of porn addiction gets him regularly on TV. Through her eyes Wolfe gives us his take on sexually unhinged modern life with the pervasiveness of pornography, ever more public acts of sex and nudity, and an orgy among the well-connected at a regatta. Only slowly does Magdalena realize her own boss is sex addicted himself, and also exploiting his richest client's dependence upon him to get entree into his social circles. Wolfe has frequently written about sex in modern life, but here he chronicles ever-darker lows, symbolized by the billionaire porn addict's revolting STD symptoms.
To live in luxury with her boss, Magdalena leaves Hialeah's suffocating Cuban embrace. Nestor is expelled from it. His plight deepens when his takedown of an enormous and violent crack dealer turns into a racial incident broadcast on YouTube, leading to his suspension from the police force. He falls in with an ambitious young Miami Herald reporter investigating rumors that a wealthy Russian philanthropist may have committed a monumental fraud. Camacho has been abandoned by everyone around him - the police force, his family, his girlfriend - but never abandons devotion to his duty.
The work has some flaws. It ends abruptly. Wolfe's style, particularly the run-on sound effects, can become tedious, and if cut by a third would still get the message across. I have never understood what passages set off by :::::::::::: connote. Wolfe started using it long ago, but I've never gotten what exactly differentiates these passages from the rest of the consciousness flow.
And I don't understand the title, unless it suggest Miami is incurably tribal. The ending hints, ever so faintly, otherwise. There might be some rays of hope.
But Wolfe's insights into food, language, status, wealth and style are, as ever, dead on, and deeply revealing. And depressing. There is vanishingly little sense that among the upper crust, much style or dignity or human value at all survive amid all that money. A scene of slovenly billionaires stampeding through the Miami Basel art convention in search of deals, seems much like K-Mart shoppers hurrying to a blue light special - but with more vulgarity.