Michiko Kakutani

BACK TO BLOOD

By Tom Wolfe?(Little, Brown & Co., 704 pages, $30)

In Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe tries to do for Miami what he did for New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Atlanta in A Man in Full. The result is a soapy, gripping and sometimes glib novel that’s filled with heaps of contrivance and cartoonish antics, but that also stars two characters who attest to Wolfe’s improved ability to conjure fully realized people.

As he steers this big boat of a story in careening circles of coincidence, Wolfe drives home his familiar Darwinian view of human nature, even as he showers us with his much-imitated confetti of status and sartorial details. Once again, he depicts a dog-eat-dog world in which people behave like animals, clawing their way up the greasy social pole. Once again, he uses racial tensions — and their political fallout — to fuel his storyline.

And once again, he uses lots of exclamatory dialogue (“Dirty traidor peeg!”) and sarcastic generalizations (“on street patrol a Cuban cop like him would make sure he got a short-sleeved uniform one size too small that brought out every bulge” of his chiseled upper body) to create shameless stereotypes based on ethnicity and class.

Wolfe excavates the world of the superrich with cackling glee, reduces politicians to caricatures and mocks or eviscerates practically everybody else. Among the specimens he tries to pin to the board are Sergei Korolyov, a swaggering Russian oligarch who has donated $70 million worth of paintings to a new Miami art museum; Edward T. Topping IV, a social-climbing, scaredy-cat WASP, who finds himself editing the Miami Herald; Lantier, a self-hating Haitian professor, who wants his daughter to pass as white; and Dr. Norman Lewis, a randy, loathsome psychiatrist who specializes in treating pornography addicts.

Many of Wolfe’s efforts devolve into predictable set pieces mocking the antics of the rich to get into the most exclusive clubs or parties, to bask in the glow of celebrity while sending rays of schadenfreude toward their vanquished social rivals. Sex scenes — involving a regatta/orgy that features a pornographic film projected on the sails of a schooner — suffer from the sort of smarmy voyeurism that weighed down I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). And his exposes of the art world can often feel like predictable illustrations to his 1975 book The Painted Word.

What holds our attention — and pushes us past the sometimes simplistic satire — are Wolfe’s two main characters: Nestor Camacho, a heroic Cuban-American cop, who finds himself at the center of race-based clashes that threaten to set off riots, and his former girlfriend Magdalena, an ambitious but good-hearted nurse who, after leaving him, finds herself in one dreadful relationship after another.

Although Wolfe can be patronizing, mocking them for their ignorance and naivete, he also portrays them with genuine sympathy, using their earnest idealism as a prism by which to view the pretensions, social climbing and Machiavellian manipulation that burbles all around them. Nestor and Magdalena show that after the disappointing I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe has been able to build upon the advances he made in creating flesh-and-blood people in A Man in Full (1998) — people who are not defined simply by their clothes, cars and verbal idiosyncrasies, but who actually possess something resembling an inner life.

Nestor is a likable Everyman, the son of Cuban immigrants, who lives in Hialeah, a “little Cuban capsule” in Miami, in a world defined by his parents’ and grandparents’ hopes and expectations. His life is turned upside down after he rescues a Cuban refugee — a rescue that enrages Miami Cubans, when the refugee ends up facing deportation. Nestor’s heroics in a crack-den bust similarly threaten to ignite racial tensions in the wake of accusations of police brutality.

As for Magdalena, she is sucked into the snooty art world after accompanying her boss to Miami Art Basel events, and finds herself falling for Korolyov at the very moment he has become the subject of a newspaper investigation into rumors that the paintings he gave are forgeries.

Although the final scenes here aren’t nearly as abrupt or stage-managed as those in A Man in Full, Wolfe doesn’t really seem to care if his storyline becomes increasingly preposterous. His aim is to serve as an entertaining tour guide to the theme park-reality show that he calls Miami.

Unlike his earlier novels, Back to Blood doesn’t aspire to capture the zeitgeist of an era. Rather, the novel is content to give us an impressionistic portrait of Miami as a city of immigrants, where ethnicity heightens class tensions, a city whose population, the fictional mayor muses, “is more than 50 percent recent immigrants,” where Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Colombians, Russians and Israelis jostle to get a foot on the ladder of the American dream, while those above them — the snobs, climbers, rich and superrich — are trying to scramble even higher.

Wolfe’s mayor, Dionisio Cruz, tells the chief of police that they’ll never succeed in making Miami a melting pot — “that’s not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes.” He also quotes a constituent who says: “Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

That last line pretty much sums up Wolfe’s view of the city, and it also describes the motor powering his entertaining but flawed new novel.