Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood” reviewed by Ron Charles
By Ron Charles,
Four years ago, news broke that Tom Wolfe, the white-suited gladiator of New Journalism, was writing a novel about Miami. He’d already taken on New York and Atlanta in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” — thick, pugilistic novels that punched their way into the zeitgeist. Even his ridiculous sexcapade, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” couldn’t depress the potential value of his Miami story in progress. Little, Brown lured Wolfe away from his longtime publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, with an advance rumored to be close to $7 million. And now we finally have it — “Back to Blood” — a novel that cost $10,000 per page.
That’s the kind of ludicrous excess that Wolfe loves to parody. But readers (and Little, Brown’s accountants) may not appreciate the joke.
“Back to Blood” is a screwball comedy that wants to stretch its ham-hands around the whole sunbaked city and feel the pulse of all its seething conflicts. In a chaotic world without religion, patriotism or civility, “that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us.” And this city of recent immigrants is ground zero. As the Cuban mayor tells the black chief of police:“If you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.” To beat that point home, Wolfe constructs a Balkanized town and a narrative that reads like a gabby encyclopedia of ethnic stereotypes.
His young hero is a Cuban American cop named Nestor Camacho, newly promoted to the elite Marine Patrol. He’s eager, idealistic and muscle-bound like Mr. Universe. (Deltoids, pectorals, quadriceps — Wolfe chants these terms as if he’s studying for a phys ed exam.) In the novel’s one spectacularly exciting scene, the Marine Patrol is called to investigate a sailboat floating close to the Rickenbacker Causeway, which runs from Miami to Key Biscayne.Traffic has stopped on the bridge, and spectators are screaming. A half-drowned Cuban refugee has sneaked onto a schooner and scurried up its 70-foot foremast. Determined to prove himself a good cop, Nestor — half-Superman, half-Spider-Man — climbs up the foremast and brings the terrified refugee down, ready to be sent back to Cuba. Nestor’s instantly transformed into a media sensation, a fitness guru and a traitor to his people in a city itching to riot.
It’s a fantastic setup, full of loud noises — SMACK — and exclamations in CAPITAL LETTERS, even if the effect suffers from the diminishing returns of someone grasping for attention by RAISING HIS VOICE!!! Wolfe is a sorcerer who can stir up a storm of swirling characters, all of them trapped in their own dilemmas and delusions. The raging Cuban community wants Nestor’s head. Nestor’s family turns him out. His luscious girlfriend tosses him over for a celebrity psychiatrist who treats (and cultivates) billionaire porn addicts. The silver-spooned new editor of the Miami Herald hates journalism but knows a good story when YouTube delivers it to his front page. And a Russian oligarch has just elbowed his way into high society by filling the art museum with modern masters.
For a few hundred pages, this circus of tribal warfare is entertaining enough. Wolfe’s attention to ethnolects — the peculiar dialects of various ethnic groups — can be laborious, but it highlights the way people encode their insults and their superiority in language. Unfortunately, he relies on some clunky punctuation to convey internal dialogue, e.g. “::::::A raccoon he calls me!::::::” But if you can stomach that typographical contrivance :::::::So many colons!:::::: you’ll enjoy everyone’s panicked thoughts. For a nation of immigrants, we’re still comically sensitive around one another, and Miami is a perfect place to watch the melting pot boil.
Soon, though, the whole apparatus grows awfully wobbly, and the novel’s broad spectrum shifts to primary colors. Wolfe has never been a terribly subtle writer, but he’s usually an engaging one. This time the lack of nuance is wearing, like a camp skit that drags on till long after the fire has burned out. The essentialist statements — about the way Cubans are, the way blacks are, the way Russians are, even the way men and women are — reduce everyone to not-very-interesting types. Scenes set at an “active adults” apartment complex made me nostalgic for the Wildean wit of “The Golden Girls.”
Worse, rather than concentrate on Nestor as his athletic heroism spoils in the toxic air of Miami’s racial atmosphere, Wolfe chases after a gaggle of distracting plotlines that don’t effectively cohere. (One telling indication of this problem is the opening of Chapter 7, which begins, “Nestor Camacho — remember him?”) A case of teacher-student abuse runs through the novel but remains thinly sketched and extraneous. The goofy intrigue of Wolfe’s Russian gangsters wouldn’t stump Scooby-Doo. His parody of journalism’s decline has been crumbled up in the recycling bin for years. And it’s very late in the decline of Western civilization to be satirizing the absurdity of the art market; nothing here approaches the snap and insight of Wolfe’s scathing critique in “The Painted Word” almost 40 years ago.
One might have hoped that “I Am Charlotte Simmons” had spent the 81-year-old author’s lust for sexual anthropology, but no. . . . The effect is reminiscent of George H.W. Bush discovering the grocery store scanner — and just about as erotic. At one point, for instance, Wolfe explains that Nestor “has been seeing her, dating her, which is to say, these days, going to bed with her.” Aha! While no one who read it will ever forget the equine mating scene in “A Man in Full,” the sex in “Back to Blood” is just loud and repellent. An extended scene at a strip club BEAT thung strains to be BEAT thung phantasmagoric but merely BEAT thung hyperventilates. ::::::Get this author some air!!!:::::: Nestor’s ex-girlfriend and her creepy psychiatrist-lover drag us through “the pustular oozing of complete freedom,” which is a great phrase and about all I can quote here. The climax, so to speak, takes place at a regatta-orgy for horny trust-fund kids who are thrilled to recognize the famous porn doctor from his recent appearance on “60 Minutes.” (You know how the young people love watching “60 Minutes.”) Wolfe’s position is hard to pin down amid all this lechery. He carries on like a horny preacher getting off on the lurid terms of his own jeremiad.
I suppose when you’ve paid $7 million for a manuscript, you can’t very well start tossing golden chunks of it onto the floor, but “Back to Blood” could have been much better under a stronger editorial hand. Nestor is sweet and endearing; the story of him mutating into “a one-man race riot” would have provided plenty of action for a wide-screen social novel. The comedy, alternately broad and wry; moments of masterfully engineered calamity; and a bold grasp of a whole city are all here buried beneath diversions and cartoonish detours. Miami deserves better, and so do we. The author of “Back to Blood” should have been sent back to work.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
BACK TO BLOOD By Tom Wolfe Little, Brown. 704 pp. $30