Tom Wolfe’s 2012 novel, ‘Back to Blood,’ presents Miami in oppressively granular detail

July 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 16, 2013

Tom Wolfe is an important writer who writes important books, an accomplished newspaper and magazine journalist, and a leading figure in the New Journalism movement. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Wolfe incorporated literary techniques into nonfiction writing. His best-known nonfiction books, all best-sellers, are The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), an anthology that portrayed American’s unique car culture in its title essay; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which chronicled the drug-addled antics of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters; and The Right Stuff (1979), which documented the early days of America’s space program.

The Richmond, Va., native pivoted into fiction with The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel originally published as a serial by Rolling Stone in 1984-85. (When it appeared in book form in 1987, it too became a best-seller.) This tale of a New York investment banker who becomes embroiled in an inflammatory race-infused controversy launched a sequence of novels in which Wolfe switched modes. Instead of infusing journalism with literary forms, Wolfe was basing his fictions on in-depth reporting.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was followed by other tremendously successful novels grounded in journalism: A Man in Full (1998), which captured the personal journeys of a foundering Atlanta developer and a young man on the make, and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), which showed a rural North Carolinian progressing through her freshman year at an elite private university. That brings us to the 2012 novel Back to Blood. This story of a constellation of characters inhabiting the Miami metropolis is fascinating, and I wanted to like it as much as I enjoyed Wolfe’s other three novels. Yet this work, impressive as it is, somehow falls flat, for reasons that I have trouble pinpointing.

The book is centered on Nestor Camacho, a young Miami cop whose parents (and grandparents) were Cuban refugees. In the space of a few months, Camacho is involved in two incidents that infuriate the city’s Cuban and African-American communities — incidents that attract the attention of Miami’s mayor and police chief. Through his work, Camacho meets and then begins to bond with both John Smith, an ambitious young Miami Herald reporter, and Ghislaine Lantier, the entitled college-student daughter of a snobbish professor of French and Creole languages. Camacho’s would-be girlfriend, nurse Magdalena Otero, lives with her employer, psychiatrist Norman Lewis. The doctor has an unnaturally close relationship with a wealthy and influential patient, Maurice Fleischmann, which launches both Lewis and Otero into the rarefied circle of Sergei Korolyov, one of Miami’s so-called Russian oligarchs. And Korolyov’s donation of $70 million worth of paintings by early-20th-century Russian Modernists — the core of the collection of the city art museum that now bears Korolyov’s surname — has drawn Smith’s scrutiny because he happened to hear a rumor that all of the donated artwork may have been forged by one Igor Drukovich.

If this all sounds quite complicated — well, it is, and often deliciously so! It takes a while for everything to play out; Back to Blood is yet another in a long line of Wolfe tomes, weighing in at 704 pages. Like many of the author’s other outings, this book requires both patience and perseverance on the part of its reader. While much of this novel is enjoyable, I sometimes found myself wondering if everything in it was truly necessary.

Part of the problem is Wolfe’s sometimes overbearing style. Many of his character’s thoughts are rather distractingly bracketed on each side by six colons. What’s more, the author goes to great lengths to capture different sounds and sensations over which many others would just gloss. Take this short speech by a police sergeant, made aboard a speeding boat:

“This don’t sound like an illegal” SMACK “to me. I never heard of an illegal coming in on a boat with a” SMACK “mast. You know? They’re too slow; they’re too obvious…Besides, you take Haiti…or” SMACK “Cuba. There ain’t no more boats with masts like that.” He turned his head to the side and tilted it SMACK back to speak over his shoulder. “Right, Nestor?” Nes-ter. “They don’t even have” SMACK “masts in Cuba. Right? Say ‘Right,’ Nestor.” Nes-ter.

Or take this passage, in which Ike Walsh of 60 Minutes (a stand-in for Mike Wallace) attempts to question Lewis about serious professional differences he has with four esteemed colleagues as the psychiatrist emphasizes his friendly relationship with them:

The Grand Inquisitor shifted into his patented mode of arch irony: “I’m glad you had such a good time, Dr. Lewis, but that wasn’t —”

Cruuusssh! “AhhhHAHHHAHAHHH Hock hock hock hock ‘Good time’ doesn’t begin to describe it, Ike!” — Norman’s laughter, his booming voice, his 250-watt good humor rolled right over Ike Walsh. “It was a fabulous time! No one could possibly have a higher opinion of Rick than I do — and for that matter, Sam, Gibbsy, and Murray!” ::::::Gibbsy? I don’t think he’s ever laid eyes on Gibson Channing.:::::: “They’re pioneers in our fielddahhHHHHHock hock hock You’re a funny guy, Ike! AhhhHHHock hock hock!

This small snippet contains an onomatopoeic representation of Lewis as a wave (of — er — 250-watt good humor) rolling over Walsh (“Cruuusssh!”); several onomatopoeic representations of Lewis’ frequent and enormously annoying laughter; and a mental interjection from Otero. That’s a lot to process, and a little of this style goes a long way, especially when it’s…turned…up — to — MAXIMUM!!!

I have other issues with the book, too. One is that, as is so often the case, Wolfe’s characters are by and large unlikeable. The two Cubans, Camacho and Otero, are both self-interested but otherwise fundamentally decent. Unfortunately, they are so poorly educated as to be nearly impossible with whom to identify. At one point, Otero is completely baffled when she reads a Smith article that describes another character, somewhat awkwardly, with the phrase “belly-laughing.”

Seemingly everyone else in the book — especially Smith’s editor, Yale man Edward T. Topping IV — is so vain and self-interested as to be thoroughly repulsive. (Lantier might be an exception, but her father is so overweeningly snobbish as to more than balance the ledger.)

Another issue is that Wolfe doesn’t seem to conclude his story so much as depart it. By novel’s end, much plot has unspooled; several characters have either risen or fallen and then reversed the journey; the reader has seemingly traveled throughout the entire greater Miami metropolitan area. But although the characters may have changed, they haven’t really evolved; and while there have been some important developments and revelations, more seem to be around the corner.

Of course, one might argue that all these things are features rather than bugs. The real world is populated with vain, pompous buffoons, of both the over- and undereducated varieties. Real news, real life events, rarely get wrapped up in neat packages without some kind of follow-up development or aftermath.

One might also argue that Wolfe and his work are impervious to criticism (and certainly to criticism from obscure entities such as this blog — especially criticism published months after the book debuted). Back to Blood was a best-seller, although not, as best I can tell, as much of one as his previous novels.

To be honest, many of the faults I find in Back to Blood were shared by those books. Still, I remember enjoying The Bonfire of the VanitiesA Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons much more than I did Wolfe’s latest. Is this work not up to the standards of those earlier ones, or is it simply that my tastes have changed? I am, frankly, at a loss to answer the question definitively. Perhaps, as so often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between the two poles.

The bottom line: Read Back to Blood if it sounds like something that might interest you. But most readers would probably do better to turn to one of Wolfe’s earlier novels.

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