Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 704 pp
How does Tom Wolfe annoy his readers? Let me count the ways:
He inserts a cartoon-like soundtrack into his prose:
"SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence SMACK..."
This goes on intermittently for 10 pages in the first chapter.
He illustrates with words in explicit detail the inner visions and outward activities of the pornographically inclined male.
His female characters are weak, vacillating creatures who chase after men, using their sex appeal to acquire money, status, or material goods except when they are pushy, demanding witches harrying men they have already captured for the same desires.
He freely admits to writing "realism" and does it so well that some 21st century readers, perhaps accustomed to a more glossed over, air-brushed approach, just get annoyed, taking him much too seriously and missing the fact that he is mostly making fun of us.
Back to Blood is about immigration and sex and Miami and sex and art crime and sex and city politics and sex and manhood. Tom Wolfe's Miami is a city where African Americans, Cubans, and various other Latinos outnumber white people. The Blacks and Latinos live in a continuous state of mocking the whites while wanting what they have.
Specifically, 25-year-old Nestor Camacho, second generation Cuban, buff and ripped in his cop shades and extra tight uniform, is clawing his way up in the Miami police force. After an utterly manic and heroic feat, during which he saves a Cuban refugee only to have the poor fellow sent back to Cuba, Nestor loses respect among his own people while his girlfriend leaves him, all in one day.
Magdelena did not dump Nestor for betraying their people. She wasn't even watching the news. She is living with her boss, Dr Norman Lewis, a media whore, a psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, including one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Miami. Magdelena is lusting after the luxury of sleek automobiles and fancy parties, and the attention her voluptuous Latina beauty elicits.
Miami has a Cuban mayor and an African American chief of police who co-exist in an uneasy alliance. The Miami Herald, owned by the newspaper conglomerate from Chicago which owns most of America's major newspapers these days, is edited by a spineless, white guy who was shipped in from the Midwest and hopes to make his mark. He is unknowingly harboring the ambitions John Smith, a young white reporter who recently graduated from Yale with his journalist idealism intact.
Like a pyramid with serious structural flaws, Miami's immigrant base supports an apex of wealthy whites who most recently have erected an art museum, funded by contributions and filled with what are rumored to be copies of famous, priceless paintings. Nestor, the cop and John Smith, the young journalist, form an alliance of their own, as they sleuth their way through Russian oligarchs and gangsters to the truth about this art scandal. Will their rash and youthful bravado bring down their corrupt superiors? Or will money, privilege, white skin and crime prevail?
I have been reading Tom Wolfe for decades, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, through A Man in Full. The manic rhythms and hip verbosity of his prose are instantly recognizable while he repeats various tropes, including a propensity for naming and counting the musculature of male characters as well as the delights of female bodies. Though I have acquired a taste for his methods, many were the times I threw down Back to Blood and vowed to read no further, weary of the same old stuff and wondering if he hadn't passed his prime. Had he really gone too far this time?
But I was drawn back by the plot, by my curiosity as to where he was going with his story and what would happen to the characters, especially Nestor the cop, Magdelena the slut, and John Smith, the reporter. They represent the new blood of our times. We see Miami through their eyes, though they often sound more like the author than themselves.
Critics abound who complain that Wolfe does not begin to measure up to the finest literary authors. To me, that is like complaining that Tom Clancy doesn't write good romance. Wolfe tells a good, rollicking story and if rumors about the size of his advance for Back to Blood are remotely true, he doesn't write for the critics. He writes for his own amusement and to give his readers a good time.
(Back to Blood is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)