TOM WOLFE has often declared that journalistic truth is far stranger — and narratively juicier — than fiction, a refrain he’s returned to while promoting his latest sociological novel, the Miami- focused “Back to Blood.” With cultural eyes turning to Miami for this week’s Art Basel fair, and on the heels of a presidential election in which South Florida was once again in the national spotlight, “Back to Blood” would seem a perfectly timed prism.
Yet Mr. Wolfe would have done well to better heed his own advice. The flesh-and-blood reality not only contradicts much of his fictional take, it flips the enduring conventional wisdom. Miami is no longer simply the northernmost part of Latin America, or, as some have snarked, a place filled with folks who’ve been out in the sun too long.
For Mr. Wolfe, the city remains defined by bitter ethnic divisions and steered by la lucha: the Cuban-American community’s — make that el exilio’s — frothing-at-the-mouth fixation on the Castro regime across the Florida Straits. The radio format whose beats Miami moves to isn’t Top 40, rap or even salsa, but all Fidel, all the time. It’s a crude portrait, established in the ’80s, reinforced by the spring 2000 telenovela starring Elián González, hammered home in the media by that fall’s Bush v. Gore drama and replayed with the same script every four years since.
Yet the latest data hardly depicts a monolithic Cuban-exile community marching in ideological lock step. Exit polls conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International revealed that 44 percent of Miami’s Cuban-Americans voted to re-elect President Obama last month, despite a Mitt Romney TV ad attempting to link the president with Mr. Castro. The result was not only a record high for a Democratic presidential candidate, it was also a 12 percentage-point jump over 2008.
Can a novel, even a sociological one, capture all of the nuances of a big city? Or, is a novel more about capturing a spirit or the way these complexities influence a few characters? While I do enjoy fictional works, this is why I tend to gravitate toward larger-scale studies about bigger patterns. One story or a few stories can explore nuance and more details. However, it is hard to know how much these smaller stories are representative of a larger whole. In Wolfe’s case, is his book a fair-minded view of what is taking place all across Miami or does he pick up on a few fault lines and exceptional events?
While browsing in a bookstore the other day, I did notice an interesting book that was trying to bridge this gap: The Human Face of Big Data. On one hand, our world is becoming one where large datasets with millions of data points are the norm. With this, it may be harder and harder for novels to capture all of the patterns and trends. Yet, we don’t want to lose perspective on how this data and the resulting policies and actions affect real people.