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Alexia Nader: Literary Miami

October 29, 2012

The broad strokes of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and the subtle specificity of Joan Didion’s Miami.

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Image from Flickr via Piutus

By Alexia Nader

Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, Back to Blood, razzle-dazzles with its array of beefy police officers, vapid women, and Russian gangsters. When I read it, I sensed that it had misrepresented the city where I grew up, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how. So I picked up a copy of the best book about the place I’ve ever read, Joan Didion’s 1987 Miami. In the beginning chapters, Didion describes the city as possessing “a more fluid atmosphere, one in which the native distrust of extreme possibilities that tended to ground the temperate United States in an obeisance to democratic institutions seemed rooted, if at all, only shallowly.” A matrix of thousands of tiny distinctions of nationality, race, class, and political beliefs, Miami is still a tough city to capture today, and it’s impossible to do with broad strokes. Didion and Wolfe took on the same daunting project—to document life in a locale that is both part of the United States and in conflict with it, and to explore the role of the Cuban-American community in shaping that life. And though in the twenty or so years that separate the accounts, Miami’s various immigrant communities have changed, we can still compare these authors as guides to a city that at times seems located in another part of the world.

In the late ‘80s, after noticing the names of Cuban and other Latin American dissidents appearing in news stories about the Kennedy assassination hearings, Didion started reporting regularly in Miami. She headed to the domestic intersection of the Americas: a city in South Florida that most people associated with tourism and the television show Miami Vice. She could see toxic connections—among the Cuban ex-pat community, the CIA, political forces in Washington, and guerrilla groups in Latin America—forming right under the city’s flashy veneer. She peered at the Cubans as they argued about counterrevolutions in Cuba and dealt with the double-crossing of the CIA, which trained and financed them and later labeled them terrorists. She documented how often these same Cubans built respectable careers in the city and attempted to come to terms with the permanence of exile from their home country. “Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” was the opaque first line of the resulting book.

Though relayed to us coolly, Didion’s details rub against each other, building up charge until they create an atmosphere of disquiet that feels inescapable.

Miami’s mood followed the lines of that mysterious sentence. Didion thought that the actions of and discord within the Cuban exile community in Miami—as well as its ties to guerrilla groups in Central and Latin America, and the constant testing of its relationship with the U.S. government—was not only dominating the city’s political and social arena, but also poisoning it. She makes this case largely through insinuation, by hinting at the big picture using seemingly minor details. About Miami International Airport, she writes:

Delays [of flights] were explained by weather in Panama. The very names of the scheduled destinations suggested a world in which many evangelical inclinations had historically been accommodated, many yearnings toward empire indulged.

A few lines later, she glances at an airport newsstand and finds a monthly magazine called South: The Third World Magazine, “edited in London and tending to brisk backgrounders on coup rumors and capital flight.” Through these snippets, documenting the city’s perspective, Didion both explains and critiques the direction of Miami’s grassroots energy: the city’s political and social efforts were directed outward—towards Cuba and Latin America— rather than inward, where they could be used to build strong local communities. And with so much rancor and disappointment from abroad entering the city, the resulting mixture was one in which nothing remotely solid—like businesses, or new ties between immigrant groups—could be built: “The feel was that of a Latin capital, a year or two away from a new government.”

Accreting details and endowing them with rhetorical weight were the best and perhaps the only way she could write about Miami honestly at the time. In Didion’s view, words from politicians in Washington about policies in Latin America and the Caribbean couldn’t be taken at face value. In an interview for The Paris Review, she said to Hilton Als: “I realized that the words didn’t have any actual meaning, that they described a negotiation more than they described an idea. But then you begin to see that the lack of specificity is specific in itself, that it is an obscuring device.” And, as you slowly begin to perceive in Miami, the Cuban dissidents’ words are just as muddied by nostalgia for Cuba’s past and as by frustration about its thwarted prospects.

Though relayed to us coolly, Didion’s details rub against each other, building up charge until they create an atmosphere of disquiet that feels inescapable. There’s the image of the city: “its newfound glamour, its ‘hotness’…was that of prerevolutionary Havana, as perceived by Americans.” She points out the small attendance of a class about Cuban culture for Anglo-Americans living in Miami, which showed that “Miami Anglos were in fact interested in Cubans only to the extent that they could cast them as aspiring immigrants.” We get the 1980 Arthur McDuffie case, in which four cops were charged with killing a black insurance agent, forecast like this: “’The Cuban kids were all leaning on their horns and the blacks were all sitting on their porches…You knew it was going to happen but you didn’t know when.” Then there are the “guerilla discounts” for semi-automatic weapons; bullet-proof windows installed in residential homes; wars of words on Cuban radio that necessitated an armed guard for one of the commentators; a comment that “John F. Kennedy is still the number two most hated man in Miami,” made glibly by a mayoral candidate. The narrative pressure becomes so forceful you believe Miami is on the verge of collapse.

Having grown up in Miami during the period just following Didion’s observations, its dark premonitions surprised me. The Miami I knew, which was reeling from the destruction of a major hurricane that destroyed large sections of the city in 1992, did not seem to be a hotbed of racial and nationalistic tension and politically motivated crime. But I do remember the Elián González debacle. And while at the airport these days, there are no magazines detailing guerrilla gossip, I was not shocked to hear a TSA agent breezily tell a woman with a ticket to Nicaragua that he was once sent there during a period of imprisonment by Cuba.

Another Miami native and journalist, Jordan Melnick, was haunted by Didion’s book. “The incidents and details piled up until my hometown began to seem foreign to me,” he wrote in an introduction to an interview with Dario Moreno, a Cuban-American historian. He wanted to know what had happened since the book was written—why there was no meltdown. He talked to Moreno, Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, and Alberto Milian, a lawyer and the son of the radio host Emilio Milian who was killed by a car bomb in 1976 after speaking out against the violence of some anti-Castro groups. They more or less agreed that the intensity of the Cuban cause—la lucha—had diminished as some former dissidents entered mainstream politics and others in their 70s and 80s began to die. For Moreno, the new generation feels American rather than Cuban. “I’m 52,” Moreno told Melnick. “If you ask any Cuban younger than me, they’re going to say ‘American.’ Older than me, it becomes more split, but you’ll still be amazed by how many view themselves as American.”

Writing about Miami in the aughts, Wolfe had to contend with a calmer city, affected by this change in the Cuban community. But while the atmosphere is more tranquil on the surface, there is still much room for human drama. For instance, how do the city’s inhabitants deal with its violent past—the fallout from drug wars and politically motivated murders like Milian’s— which is still in recent memory? Wolfe focuses principally on Miami residents in their 20s, a nurse and a police officer—part of the new generation of children of Cuban immigrants who primarily consider themselves American. In this community there are many tender issues about identity—fertile subjects for a novelist. Here’s another good question Wolfe might address: How do children of this Cuban-American generation navigate myths about Cuba, built and calcified by their parents’ and grandparents’ generation?

By setting the scope of this novel at the entirety of Miami, and focusing broadly on the tangle of immigrant populations in it, Wolfe establishes his intention of writing a novel with sociological implications. But for some reason, in Back to Blood, he decided not to touch any of the issues mentioned above. Instead, he grafts the toxicity of the Miami of Didion’s time onto today’s Miami. In one of the beginning scenes in the book, Nestor Camacho, the police officer protagonist, rescues a Cuban dissident who is trying to make it to the city’s shore in order to receive political amnesty. Nestor saves his life but the police apprehend the immigrant, and we are made to understand that he will be sent back to Cuba. Nestor doesn’t think he has done anything particularly wrong, and he is made out to be a hero in “Anglo Miami.” But when he goes home to his all-Cuban community in the Hialeah neighborhood, he is hysterically ostracized and cast out by his family because he sent a fellow Cuban back home. Nestor’s father yells furiously at his son: “’How could you do that to a man of your own blood? He’s fifteen meters from freedom, and you arrest him! You condemn him to torture and death in Fidel’s dungeons!…I’ve been on the phone all night! Everyone knows! They turn on the radio, and all they hear is ‘Traidor! Traidor! Traidor!’”

Wolfe’s details, unlike Didion’s, simply underperform, refusing to create the ticking-time-bomb mood Wolfe desperately wants for his novel.

Wolfe uses this heightened tone to badger you into accepting his thesis: that there is an impermeable division between the Cubans and everyone else in Miami. Like Didion, Wolfe piles up details to make his case. He has said that he reported extensively in Miami for material, conducting interviews with real Cuban police officers, for instance. And because the story is written in the close third person, we get Cuban characters constantly spewing details about their cultural idiosyncrasies. They think a lot about how much they love strong, sweet coffee—rather than bland, watery American coffee—and flaky pastries called pastelitos (clearly exotic for Wolfe). They have an odd habit of puzzling over simple English words, as if they had never learned the language at even a basic level. Here are Nestor’s thoughts on a Waspy reporter character: “The americano stood there dressed so americano, it was annoying…the khaki pants so well pressed you could cut your finger on the crease…Had Nestor known and understood the word preppy, he would have realized why it got under his skin.” Wolfe’s objective in putting in these details, even thought it runs the risk of making his characters seem clueless to the point of being uninteresting, is simple: to show Cubans as culturally incompatible with everyone else in Miami.

Both works make covert arguments about the city. But Didion makes hers so organically, you almost don’t notice that it’s there until the sense of impending doom peaks.

From this juxtaposition stems a slew of other racial and ethnic conflicts—from the African-American head of police who can’t get respect from the Cuban mayor; to the white editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald, a transplant from up North who is befuddled by the people who live in the city his paper covers. But these story lines fall flat because Wolfe fails to convince us of the original us-them division. His details, unlike Didion’s, simply underperform, refusing to create the ticking-time-bomb mood Wolfe desperately wants for his novel. It is possible that the tendency towards extreme cultural separation no longer exists in the city. But if Wolfe could have made his details work, he might have convinced us of it in the world of the novel.

It may be slightly unfair to compare Wolfe’s novel to a non-fiction account. But he and Didion are working largely in the same sphere. Didion didn’t want to write directly about the political issues in Miami, so she borrows literary techniques in a New Journalism fashion, taking the small detail and showing it to be part of a larger metaphor for the big idea. Wolfe tries to make the fictive details in his novel adhere to sociological ones that he discovers through reporting. Both works make covert arguments about the city. But Didion makes hers so organically, you almost don’t notice that it’s there until the sense of impending doom peaks. Wolfe, who set a high bar in trying to write a novel with a sociological thesis, announces his views right at the beginning of the work.

He has decided that the Cuban community in Miami is an out-of-control social group whose very existence threatens the stability of the city. In the book, we see it for the idea it is—clumsy, banal, without current context or underpinnings.

In Miami, Didion as a guide is willing to poke around and listen. We trust her because she lets us in to her process of discovery—the collection of facts, and her counterintuitive interpretations. One of the most eerie scenes in Miami takes place at the largely empty Omni International Hotel downtown. Didion notices that it is almost impossible to reach the ballroom—a hangout for rich Cubans—from the ground floor—a hangout for black teenagers. She comments: “I came to see the hotel and its mall as the most theatrical possible illustration of how a native proletariat can be left behind in a city open to the convulsions of the Third World.” Didion gives us connections of this sort in enough abundance to convince even a native to see her city with a new perspective, as the inheritance of a dark chapter in American history. In contrast, Wolfe positions himself as an outsider who has already made up his mind about how Miami runs. He has decided that the Cuban community in Miami is an out-of-control social group whose very existence threatens the stability of the city. In the book, we see it for the idea it is—clumsy, banal, without current context or underpinnings.

There are still conflicts and resentments brewing among Miami’s communities—ones that have the potential to create the types of ferment that Wolfe appreciates. But he would have had to do more than just gathering local lore and mixing it with Cold-War era prejudices. Patience to wander confused in a strange, tropical capital, with a sharp eye for the right detail when it’s revealed: that was the key to Didion’s understanding of the city. Instead of backing away from questions of identity, about who feels Cuban (or Haitian, or any one of the number of other Latin America and Caribbean identities which Wolfe conveniently forgets exist in Miami), Miamian and American, and in what order, she confronts them. She knew that only by doing all of that would she earn the city’s secrets.

Understanding how Didion’s book worked clarified why Back to Blood rang so false. It wasn’t that Wolfe’s book was factually inaccurate: he maps out the city fairly well in terms of what buildings are where and what type of people live in the various neighborhoods. Rather, it’s that Wolfe’s sociology (as he defines it) smothers any sense of contingency in personalities, spaces, and situations. His characters are almost exclusively products of their race, class, and immigrant communities; his spaces are forcibly designed to highlight the city’s divisions; and his plot is driven by the need to bring sociological differences into relief.

This narrow narrative vision calls Wolfe into suspicion: he seems an ungenerous observer of the real city. There’s no chance for Miami, as he sees it, to be better—sounder and kinder—than it once was. And as re-reading Miami underlines, to deny the city the possibility of change is to willfully ignore how far it has already come.

Alexia Nader is a writer in New York and a recent graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

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