Showdown: Tom Wolfe v Carl Hiaasen

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February 17, 2013 by brettdgale

“Mac starts screaming, “Speak English you pathetic idiot! You’re in America Now! Speak English!”

For a second the rude bitch seems to understand and goes silent. Then, she reverts to her calm haughty self and with a mocking smile says rather softly, “No mia malhablada puta gorda, we een Mee-ah-mee now! You in Mee-ah-mee now”

You’re in Miami now!

Miami – America’s melting pot or flaming crucible for a clash of cultures?

The land of Don Johnson and Marco Rubio. Of Art Deco and Key Lime Pie. Of the Dolphins and the Marlins (and the not altogether unknown idea in south Florida that money can replace anything). More Jewish than Israel, more Cuban than Havana, and more Wasp than Boston. Home of the Everglades and home of the ever tanned.

It’s a city ripe for literary treatment and in the last few months I’ve read two disparate views of the glitz and glamour of the land built from the swamp.

From time to time I’m going to use this blog to run a head to head contest. It might be two books on the same topic or two books by the same author or two something elses completely. But for my first foray into this battleground I’m going to check out two visions of the underbelly of Miami, a city I visited last year for the first time and am still coming up for air from.

In the blue corner we have Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood, in the red corner Carl Hiaasen with Tourist Season.

A new Tom Wolfe novel is always time for excitement and expectation. However latterly, they tend to turn out like Christmas presents from your grandmother – promising much but delivering less than you want once the wrapping is removed.

Back to Blood is sadly true to recent form in this respect. With his usual shouty tone threatening to overwhelm the senses (an intended effect to be sure), Wolfe turns his authorial talents and social critiques back to his happy stomping ground of the racial tensions at the heart of American society.

Key to the novel is the story of Nestor Camacho, a second generation Cuban cop and a one man race riot waiting to happen. Along the way we meet a psychiatrist expert in pornography addiction, Russian art fraudsters, an insipid Yale educated editor of the Miami Herald, and a nurse on the lookout for her next glamorous boyfriend.

As always, Wolfe skewers pretension, cant and the modern world, with all the subtlety of a Pauline Hanson speech, and most of it is well worth reading. That’s why I can’t completely say I didn’t enjoy large swathes of Back to Blood, rather, the nagging annoying bits too often tended to overwhelm the good.

Hiaasen on the other hand is the author of a number of murder mysteries with a political bent all set in the fetid atmosphere of Miami and surrounds. Discovered by me as a recommendation of the Lonely Planet Guide to Miami of all things.

As I said in my Best Books of 2012 review:

Tourist Season is an enjoyable detective romp through the wilds of south Florida, from the swamps of the Everglades to the high rise glitz of Miami Beach. Hiaaasen leads the reader on a merry chase to catch a dysfunctional group of enviro-terrorists hell bent on destroying the Miami tourism industry. Fun and funny.

Both writers deal in caricatures and grotesques with Wolfe the more didactic of the two. But, Hiaasen seems to me to be having fun and not taking his (serious) social commentary too seriously, whereas, it’s often hard to tell with Wolfe whether he is someone exposing a hidden social truth or simply a racially paranoid conservative.

Hiaasen in a clear points decision.


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