Tom Wolfe's latest novel, 'Back to Blood', comes 8 years after 'I Am Charlotte Simmons'. The latter novel was a luridly inside account of the U.S. college social system. This time Wolfe tackles the racially charged milieu of Miami. It's a city that attracts large numbers of immigrants. Cubans are the majority and in the book, Wolfe's main character is a Cuban cop named Nestor Camacho. The mayor of Miami in the book is also Cuban and at one point he says that Miami “is more than 50 percent recent immigrants.” The other main characters include a Black Chief of Police, a rich and handsome Russian "oligarch", Nestor's former girlfriend Magdalena, a white social-climbing psychiatrist whom Magdalena leaves Nestor for, a pretty Haitian student who Nestor falls for, a young WASP reporter who befriends Nestor.
As with any Tom Wolfe book, it is meticulously researched and chock full of insightful social analysis. It also features Wolfe's trademark onomatopoeia (notably the psychiatrist's way of laugh-talking: "ahhHock hock hock!"). The story has a few too many coincidences in the plot to make it truly believable, but still it is compelling and there is a harmony in how Wolfe ties all the characters together.
I'd put this book up there with Charlotte Simmons. In many ways both Charlotte Simmons and Back to Blood, the two novels he's written in the 2000's, are far more deeply researched and insightful than Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel published in 1987. But I'll always have a soft spot for Bonfire as my favourite Wolfe novel, since I studied it at university.
Having re-read The Right Stuff earlier this year, Wolfe's nonfiction book from 1979 about the U.S. space program, I marginally prefer Wolfe's nonfiction works over his novels. However, fiction does allow Wolfe to get deeper into his characters and that brings out his best analysis about society and status - always his two key themes. I find his plots to be sometimes a bit unbelievable, but it's a tradeoff worth making. So overall, I really enjoyed Wolfe's latest novel. He's still got The Right Stuff.