Based on the same sort of detailed, on-scene, high-energy reporting that powered Tom Wolfe's previous bestselling novels, Back to Blood is another brilliant, spot-on, scrupulous, and often hilarious reckoning with our times.
As a police launch speeds across Miami's Biscayne Bay - with officer Nestor Camacho on board - Tom Wolfe is off and running. Into the feverous landscape of the city, he introduces the Cuban mayor, the black police chief, a wanna-go-muckraking young journalist and his Yale-marinated editor; an Anglo sex-addiction psychiatrist and his Latina nurse by day, loin lock by night - until lately, the love of Nestor's life; a refined, and oh-so-light-skinned young woman from Haiti and her Creole-spouting, black-gang-banger-stylin' little brother; a billionaire porn addict, crack dealers in the 'hoods, "de-skilled" conceptual artists at the Miami Art Basel Fair, "spectators" at the annual Biscayne Bay regatta looking only for that night's orgy, yenta-heavy ex-New Yorkers at an "Active Adult" condo, and a nest of shady Russians.
Wolfe was educated at Washington and Lee Universities and also at Yale, where he received a PhD in American studies.
Tom Wolfe spent his early days as a Washington Post beat reporter, where his free-association, onomatopoetic style would later become the trademark of New Journalism. In books such as The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe delves into the inner workings of the mind, writing about the unconscious decisions people make in their lives. His attention to eccentricities of human behavior and language and to questions of social status are considered unparalleled in the American literary canon.
He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
21st century Miami is reportedly to have the highest percentage of first and second generation immigrants than anywhere in the world probably dues to its Cuban, Haitian and wider Latino populations, but also its new Eastern European residents pled by the Russian charge, in this melting pot (for lack of a more nuanced term) this book follows good-hearted but ultimately naïve Cuban cop Nesta; his 'girl' super ambitious Magdalena; the (possibly politically appointed) Black police chief and his sometime nemesis the Cuban mayor; the Yale-esque editor in chief and his progressive and ambitious reporter John Smith; as well as a Russian oligarch! Overall this, on the face of it, story about corruption and local politicking is really a tale of how these people from different backgrounds all strive for recognition and possibly reward in 21st century America.
I read and now review this as an avid Tom Wolfe fan, so please bear that in mind. So, essentially it read like Wolfe took the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' approach; the media claimed that he was paid a $7m advance for this book; a book that ended up a critical and commercial failure, yet as far as I can make it out it's pretty much like his other 3 novels, with an eclectic cast of characters-led plot that looks to try and capture the reality of modern America, and in this case the city where the 'future arrived first' - Miami.
What I feel Wolfe nails (as he always does for me) is how he manages to mix race and gender stereotypes with individual characteristics to create so many well fleshed out multi-facetted characters, where I think he fails (as he does in this book at times) is his need to tell an interesting story (at his publisher's behest?), which I felt often saw some of his plotting struggle to maintain credibility within his constructed contemporary realities' context; although personally I just didn't care as I enjoyed being absorbed in the minutiae of his characters' day to day existences as they struggled to live and succeed in Wolfe's America! 8 out of 12. I find Wolfe's work makes me see accept that, for me, his stories are just the framework within which is superb characterisations dwell.. and I love it!
First off, I am a HUGE fan of Tom Wolfe. I have read everything he has ever written. I was willing to write off CHARLOTTE SIMMONS as an anomaly, a mistake in judgment. The material simply wasn't a good fit for him. BACK TO BLOOD sounded like it was right in his wheelhouse. I was stoked. This was going to be a capstone to his amazing career.
While you can see why he was attracted to the milieu, and there are flashes of his usual incisiveness and wit, the overall sense here is of a missed opportunity. I attribute this to a number of reasons. First and foremost, the editing is DREADFUL. This book could and SHOULD have been at least 100 pages shorter, There is so much unnecessary repetition and regurgitation, not to mention an overarching use of his usual creative flourishes (sound effects, rap lyrics, etc.) which here come across as largely crass and tone-deaf. There are several narrative threads that feel tacked-on (there is a reality-show chapter that goes basically nowhere, and has no payoff), and others that are simply abandoned (the early emphasis on central character Nestor Camacho's Cuban roots just drift into irrelevance). Additionally, while Wolfe explores his usual themes of class, race, sexual urges, and male manliness, the angles on them here feel hollow, almost obligatory.
Tom Wolfe is in his 80s now. He is a legend. He deserved better than this, and so did his fans.
I love absolutely love Bonfire of the Vanities. It was the first Tom Wolfe book I read, and I couldn’t put it down. So I’ve read each book he’s written since, each time hoping to have another reading experience like that first one. Some have been better than others, but none of them disappointed quite like Back to Blood.
Back to Blood has that same Tom Wolfe style and wordplay. The characters he chooses to develop are very well-developed. But most of those characters are obnoxious and repellant. Mr. Wolfe may be saying something profound about Miami, or contemporary America, but it’s not enjoyable to read. And there’s not a lot of story here. Each individual scene is interesting in its own way, but not much happens when I look back on it. I got to the end and found the book both much too long (it should have been at least 100 pages shorter) and yet too short in that items I thought were significant plot points went unresolved or only hinted at. After 700 pages, I wanted to see Nestor finally tell off Magdalena, not just imagine it. I’m not sorry I read Back to Blood, but I wish it had been better.
While I was reading Back to Blood, I happened to mention to a friend that it was the first I’d read from Wolfe since The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test decades prior. He was astounded that I’d never read Bonfire of the Vanities, but I was barely out of high school when it was published. And let’s face it; Mr. Wolfe hasn’t exactly been prolific in his fiction output in recent years. So, basically, I came to this novel with very fresh eyes and few expectations. And you know what? I really loved it. But I think much of what I loved about this book is what turned off many readers. Namely, the unusual use of language within the text—but we’ll get back to that later.
Back to Blood primarily revolves around a first-generation Cuban-American cop named Nestor Camancho, who inadvertently gets embroiled in Miami’s volatile racial and ethnic politics. Early in the novel, the acrobatic arrest of an endangered Cuban asylum-seeker makes him a front-page hero for white Miami and a pariah in his own Cuban community. Wolfe documents the racial tensions of the city at large, as well as the tensions between the black and Cuban officers on the police force, and the struggle of this overwhelmingly immigrant city between culture and assimilation. Camancho becomes a pawn in a much larger game, all while trying to navigate the perils and pressures of his own familial, community, and romantic relationships.
One of the reasons I was so interested in reading this novel is that I have been considering relocating to Miami. (I know, I know, my friends are threatening to stage an intervention.) Well, Back to Blood did not encourage me. It’s a scathing satirical look at the city. With the exception of Nestor, the vast majority of the characters are fairly reprehensible—but it was funny. A perfect example of this is the character of Dr. Norman Lewis, a self-aggrandizing psychiatrist of dubious ethics and talent. The man is a jack-ass. He’s a horrible human being. But Wolfe’s merciless skewering did have me chuckling. Likewise, a scene set in the midst of filming a reality television show. Wolfe is highlighting the absurdity and vulgarity not only of this one American city, but of our broader culture. It’s not a pretty picture.
I was less interested and invested in the novel’s characters and the story being told than I was in the social observations and, as noted above, the language being used. I have heard from others that Wolfe is using some of his same old tricks, but these are new tricks to me, and I found the writing to be fresh, creative, and somewhat exhilarating. While some of the prose was conventional (but always interesting), other sections were almost… musical. Or, perhaps, like something you might hear at a poetry slam. (Or an onomatopoetry slam, with all the smacks, buzzes, and bangs!) An example:
“…He reached into the bag from Ricky’s—pastelitos!—and took out a moon of beef pastelito wrapped in wax paper… A little bit of Heaven!... tasted exactly the way he hoped it would… Pastelitos! A little flake of the baked filo dough fell… little flakes of it fell if you picked up a pastelito… little flakes fell on his clothes… upon the Camaro’s reupholstered seats… Far from annoying him, the gentle doughfall in the stillness of 7:30a.m. on a Saturday morning was a little bit of Heaven, too… made Nestor think of home, childhood delights, sunny Hialeah, a cozy casita… soft, fluffy clouds of love and affection… and protection. Gently, gently the flakes were wafted about by the white-noise zephyrs that blew out from the air conditioner vents… Nestor could feel the terrible tension draining out draining out draining out, and he drank some more coffee… ineffable sweetness—and how warm the cup and the plastic top had kept it!... and he ate some more moons of pastelito, and the flakes fell ever so gently and tumbled about in the zephyrs, and he found himself… lifting the little lever on the side of the seat and letting his own weight take it back to a twenty-degree incline…”
Let me stress that the entire 720-page novel is not written in that manner. And, of course, I can see that this is not for everybody. But somehow the rhythms of the language really worked for me. And for a novel of that length, I have to say that the pages flew past. Mr. Wolfe may be an old dog using his same old bag of tricks, but there will always be young pups for whom they are new. I have already purchased a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities. I’ve got catching up to do.
My ratings went from a 2 to 3.5 stars. It took me over two months to read this book, but I was determined to finish it as it takes place where I live. I am glad I did, because I enjoyed the last third of the book. However, so many times I was gritting my teeth. According to the author, people act according to their bloodlines. He wrote about self absorbed people, and initially I had no empathy for any of the characters. When the boat kept SMACKING the waves and the repeated “gotcha” of the mother and daughter arguments, I wanted to slap the author. I got it loud and clear after the first three SMACKS. Stop beating it to death. Yet he kept hammering and shouting at you in all caps with his “THUNGS”, “HOCKS”, “BEATS”, “GRINDS”, “THRUSTS”, etc. They were completely unnecessary distractions, which did nothing to illuminate the tale. He was too focused on the female vagina and feminine anatomy belittling the female sex, which I found crude and juvenile. If he is seeking a mature audience (especially of women), it is a huge turnoff. He thrusts constantly in your face what he wants you to know to the point of tedium. What happened to the art of subtlety of giving your readers the opportunity to form their own observations? His double ellipses were annoying.
There were a lot of stereotypes - an emasculated WASP newspaper editor-in-chief; the buffed out, determined, and caring Cuban cop; the gorgeous and feisty but insecure Cuban nurse; the youthful and tenacious Yale graduate newspaper reporter; the powerful, wealthy, and terrifying Russian oligarch; the lovely and smart do gooder Haitian college student; and the self-proclaimed porn expert and publicity seeking psychiatrist are but a few.
The book touched on many issues, which are so much a part of South Florida from Cuban wet foot/dry foot immigration policy, an Overtown drug raid, Art Deco, the Cuban cortaditos and pastelitos, the exclusive Fischer Island, cigarette boats, Art Basel, a strip club, an assisted living facility, a Wynwood art studio, reality television, the Russians, the Cubans, the Haitians, the Jews, and all the other immigrants and residents that make Miami-Dade County unique. Eventually more than halfway through the book (and it is over 700 pages, which required stamina on my part), it grew on me making me care for some of the characters and their actions.
Some of my favorite or perceptive quotes:
Hialeah: “thousands of blocks of endless rows of concrete houses and yards with working vans and boats higher than the one-story houses parked outside.”
“... language is an artifact, like a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to ... well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down – including people...”
“...she was a vision ... of God knew what.”
“Where are we?” said John Smith. “Broward County,” said Nestor, “but I don’t know exactly where. I’ve never been this far west up here before.” “This is really strange!” said John Smith, an unusually animated John Smith. “And you know why? We’ve just entered a strange land ... called America! We’re not in Miami anymore. Can’t you feel it? Some Russian named Igor is leading us into the USA!”
Miami can be a crazy town to live in and it is very different from the rest of this nation, and I love it. Kudos to Tom Wolfe to showcase some of our zaniness and specialness.
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.
What ee cummings is to poetry, Wolfe is to the novel. You can literally scan the text of his book, and recognize the punctuation, the repetition, the Shakespearean extravagant carelessness with which he manufactures words, and know that you are in a Tom Wolfe novel.
Who else but cummings could write a poem about being alone that ends with the word "loneliness" in such a way that you see "one, one, one, i-ness (a leaf falls):
l one l iness
And who else but Tom Wolfe can sprinkle his prose with strings! ::::what do they mean?::: of colons, and punch! punctuation that draws you into the mind of the characters. This is beyond "third person omniscient" - this is "third person ohmigod confessional." The private motives of the characters are revealed and exposed not by Wolfe telling us, but because the story reveals them to us.
This story is set in Miami, and Wolfe is exploring ideas he has spoken about over the last decade concerning the creeping, or stampeding tribalism that dominates a society when religion fades as an animating force in public life. We seem to need some over-arching identity, and if "God is dead" then there will be brief period where aesthetics claims our loyalty. Instead of "I am a Presbyterian," it is "I donate to PBS" or the local museum. This yields to "I am Cuban," or "Black" or "Haitian." At lease for the hoi polloi. Back to blood.
Like a good storyteller, he never mentions any of this. This is my take, having been lucky enough to attend a lecture or two by Wolfe over the past 10-15 years. He tells a story. The characters are compelling, a bit larger than life, but somehow quite believable. And happily, there is both a hero AND a somewhat happy (hopeful?) ending. This is surprising in Wolfe's novels, where the craven selfishness of politicians, and posturing of the rest of us generally leave one feeling like you've lingered too long on a "Reality" TV show. You can feel depressed and demoralized about the entire human enterprise. Who would even send their daughter to a four year university after reading "My Name Is Charlotte Simmons"?
I think this misreads Wolfe's intentions. I think he would like us to give up on our vanity and petty ambitions, not humanity. We have to hit bottom like an alcoholic, before we can start the climb back to sobriety, or in this case, society.
Racial tension, pornography, hooking-up, politics, artistic fraud, self-interest unleashed from "calling", friendship and courtship, the lure of cool, and the dogged belief that the individual can escape "the fates" make this a romp that I stayed up late several nights to finish.
If you liked Bonfire of the Vanities, you will probably like Back to Blood, as well. I like both books: the first set in New York City and the second in Miami. Both demonstrate the author's inside knowledge of the city, the police, the criminal justice system, and the racial and class tension. If you were not offended by the author's take on race relations in New York City back in the 1970s, you may not be offended by his take on the race relations in Miami in the current era. Back to Blood is very strong stuff, however, and you should be forewarned to leave politically correct thinking at the door. Some key facts offered by the author: more than 50% of Miami's population consists of recent immigrants; sixty percent of the police force is ethnically Cuban; the tension between the Cubans and the Blacks (Haitian, primarily) is high; and the political and criminal justice systems of Miami are intertwined. On top of that, the wealthy Cuban and "Americano" population appears to be sexually depraved. Back to Blood is much more sexually graphic than Bonfire of the Vanities.
Nevertheless, I admire Tom Wolfe's "vinegar" at age 70+ to tackle modern Miami and, to some extent, the modern U.S.A. His words are unvarnished and he still writes a very good yarn. His main characters: a Cuban-American cop, a Cuban-American psychiatric nurse, and a "white" French/Haitian young woman, are very interesting and lively. All three are really Americans first and Cubans or Haitians second. Their actions give quite a bit of hope to the novel and make their stories worth the reading.
By the way, Lou Diamond Phillips read the Audiobook version of Back to Blood. I would not have recognized his voice without seeing his name in the credits. His narration was excellent.
In the prologue of Tom Wolfe's latest novel, Back to Blood, Edward T. Topping IV, one of Wolfe's classic beacons of WASP-y impotence* and his wife get into a very unpleasant shouting match with a scandalously dressed Cubana (described with vintage Wolfe-lust) who had the audacity to steal their parking space. After the racially charged exchange, Topping -- heart still pounding from the conflict -- frets that since organized religion is dying in the United States, the only thing people believe in is their race, their heritage. In other words, it's Back to Blood!
*I wanted to use "ineffectitude;" alas, it is not a word. But it reads so perfectly! Unlike, for example, "ineffectualness." I feel better now that my soul is unburdened of this dilemma, but just know "impotence" was my second choice.
As I first read this prologue, I exclaimed to myself (didn't know that was possible, did you?), "My God, that's a really interesting point! I can't wait to read Wolfe's examination of this new phenomenon!" However, after a beat, I once again addressed myself, but this time in a leery, suspicious tone, "Wait...didn't Bonfire examine this? Hold on...don't I recognize this WASP from Man in Full?"
The answers? Yes and yes. Back to Blood took the formula that Wolfe executed so flawlessly in Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities and applied it to a Miami setting with much less success. In some ways, it felt as if he was doing an impression of his own writing. I guess that's inevitable when you are a prolific writer and have a distinctive style*, but this time around it felt a little more forced than in his previous masterpieces.
*Wolfe really celebrates onomatopoeia. It has never bothered me, but this time around it seemed to get out of hand. The most egregious offense: A particularly repulsive character whose laugh was described as "HOCK HOCK HOCK." Hock? What sound is he describing? For the life of me I cannot even imagine what real-life noise those letters are trying to invoke. Every time I read it, I thought the character must be a lunger or something.
Now since I am a fan of the Tom Wolfe style, I still would have enjoyed reading an impression of it for 700 pages or so if the story was there to match. And for most of the book, it was. The characters are, for the most part, interesting, and I enjoyed the glimpse into Cuban (or Miami-Cuban) culture. At some point, however, the story just kind of...stopped. There was no real ending, nor a resolution to most of the plot-lines, just a blank back cover of the book. For someone who usually crafts such a tight narrative, it was a disappointment. I really do get the feeling that he finished writing page 600 and thought to himself, "It's going to take another 600 pages to wrap this up correctly. F it, I'm 80 and I'm Tom Wolfe. I'll do it in 100, call it a 'stylistic ending' and go back to wearing white suits all day." I'm onto you, Mr. Wolfe. I'd be mad, but those suits are just so damn glorious. I’ll give you a pass this time, but consider yourself on notice.
For devoted Wolfe fans, I recommend you read the book to remind you of the heights he attained in novels past. For the rest of you, read Man in Full or Bonfire of the Vanities and then just take a trip to Miami. Ooo, even better. Read one of those WHILE traveling to Miami. If that doesn't get a 5 star rating, I don't know what will.
"Back to Blood" is more like "Bonfire" than any of the books in between. Is is a snappy read; snarky, fast-moving, filled with interesting characters and Wolfe's bright, clear writing. "Blood" comes in at 704 pages which sounds, and is, hefty, but the hustled wrap-up at the end is disappointing. You have committed a considerable amount of time to their story and deserve something better than an overly convenient tie-up.
Now about those characters. They are not a terribly likeable group but they are lively. The main character, Nestor Camacho, is a Cuban cop who, when not worrying about whether or not his pants are tight enough, wants to do right. His girlfriend, the luscious Magdalena, is doing some social climbing and trying to make it be about something besides her cleavage. There's the Russian oligarch, a creepy sexual psychiatrist, a very rich man with a nasty disease, a Haitian professor revolted that he must teach Creole as well as French and more Wolfian types. The entire ethnic mix of Miami is uncomfortable, suspicious, hot, and clannish, and the author pokes his finger into plenty of sweaty corners. At 81, Wolfe roasts all equally and obviously finds Miami spunky and maddening and enjoyed writing this book a great deal.
Take note that I scored a galley of this novel and changes may be made before publication.
A big commercial failure in the book market, but a good read. A look at the 1990s in Miami from mainly the view point of first and second generation Cuban migrants, as well some Russian, Haitian and French descendants. Superbly written, funny and witty at times. The main crime-related story arc pales when compared to the characterisations of some of the key players. Good read. 7 out of 12.
I understand all of the criticisms of Tom Wolfe -- his overreliance on sound-effects as characterization, the fact that his cultural observations veer from incredibly insightful to cheap and banal and back in the matter of a few sentences, the way he obsesses over things that are at times quite dull, and the fact that it is hard to take the observations of an 80-plus year old white man about youth culture and race completely at face value. Oh, and the suits.
But still I always find myself enjoying his writing. I like the big sprawling novel with intersecting storylines. I like the way he mixes big ideas with very specific details. I like the fact that he has clearly thought through details of the research. I just enjoy his writing. That was even true with CHARLOTTE SIMMONS, which was in many ways a problematic novel, but it is definitely true with this book. This is the story a Cuban cop in Miami who inadvertantly alienates one ethnic group after another, but it is also the story of his ex-girlfriend and her new power-hungry boyfriend and the story of the police chief and the story of some art forgeries, giving Wolfe an excuse to revisit the art scene so many years later.
Is this a realistic view of Miami? I have no idea. But it was one that I enjoyed losing myself into for 700 pages. I hope Wolfe has a few more novels in him...
There are 19 disks in this audio book. I listened to 11 of them only because it was the only audio book I had around for awhile. As soon as I got my hands on something better, I could not get rid of this thing fast enough. The plot is ridiculous and frequently disgusting, and I hated almost every one of the characters. Tom Wolfe should have quit after Bonfire of the Vanities, although there were some things I liked about I Am Charlotte Simmons.
It's had some bad press but loved this book. I listened to it on audiobook - brilliantly read by Lou Diamond Phillips - and laughed my way through the whole thing. It might not be quite so strong as Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full but it's a great romp through crime ridden, racially tense Miami with a brilliant cast of larger than life characters.
At the outset I should state that I am a fan of Tom Wolfe. His stories have abundant energy and explore many different layers of society (some of them quite seamy – so the readers of this book beware!). If you have liked his past works “Back To Blood” will appeal to you. It’s not as claustrophobic as “I am Charlotte Simmons” and it approaches “The Bonfire of the Vanities” for satire. And the main theme in any novel of Tom Wolfe is “downfall” – there is plenty of that in “Back To Blood”.
Mr. Wolfe has no fear of treading into the politically incorrect. Varied groups get a good kick – even old ladies along with Russian oligarchs, Cubans, WASPs...
The style throughout is zany and attacking. The story is centered in Miami. The main character is Nestor Camacho – a policeman who can be macho. There are several other character types – a psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, a Cuban mayor, an African-American police chief, sultry young women (more on this later), Russians who eat, drink and insult all within voice-range – the Russian restaurant scene with Magdalena and Korolyov was priceless. Wolfe is a master of confrontations - we feel the characters battling through their social and class differences.
As for the young women – Magdalena in particular – there were times where I felt the dialogue and settings approached that of a Harlequin romance – in other words cheap and sleazy. If one has “porn scenes” in a novel then in starts to degrade to that level – and that does happen in this book. Also do young, beautiful women really behave that way in front of the rich and famous by offering their bodies to achieve status (I wouldn’t be in a position to know as I am neither, but I wouldn’t mind being rich)? There was a strong tendency in this novel to divide women into that too infamous category of “whores” or “saints”. This weakened the story.
Nevertheless the book is written with verve and energy. Mr. Wolfe takes us into the gutter layers of both high and low society – he gives us views of a netherworld. He is a sharp and unforgiving observer.
As an aside, I believe it is Toronto, Canada that gets an award for being one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities.
Here are some interesting and biting passages from the book:
Page 514(my edition) “they could see the old ladies heading into the building, quite a few supporting themselves on aluminum walkers that clinked and clattered clattered and clink clink clinked... even the ones on the walkers, were carrying shopping bags...Walgreens...Walmart...CVS...Winn Dixie...Marshalls...JC Penney...Chico’s...The Gap...Macy’s...Target...Shop Rite...Banana Republic...Naturalizer... Home. Back home bearing the kill they came! The elan of a party of deadeye hunters returning from the field with what they had.”
Page 556 “He looked as if he were intent upon safeguarding his food from buzzards and dogs and thieves. Occasionally he lifted his head and flashed a knowing smile and dumped unsolicited comments in Russian – upon the conversations around him. Dumped was the word. In Russian his voice sounded like a dump truck dumping a load of gravel.”
Page 11 (in reference to Miami) “In the meantime, if the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth – celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.”
Miami gets the tom Wolfe treatment in the same way that New York did in Bonfire and Atlanta did (to a lesser extent) in A Man in Full. I can't say that I know Miami, but I also can't say I know Miami much better after reading this book. Much as I admire and like Tom Wolfe, I was reminded an awful lot of another Floridian author, Carl Hiassen, as I read Back to Blood. Except that Hiassen doesn't have to live up to being A Novelist and just gets on with his plot. Wolfe, however, carries the burden of being An Important American Writer, and I felt it showed in this novel. He tries to insert little stylistic twists into his narrative that seemed a bit forced and which ultimately became irritating as the book progressed. Frustratingly, I could see no need for this as Wolfe can write as gripping a story as anyone without any need for tricky prose. The opening scenes of Back to Blood testify to this, with a set piece that is imaginative, original and amusing, catapulting you into the novel with one swoop. Once you're caught, Wolfe pulls you into his Miami world. As in many of his novels, he's peopled it with a variety of larger than life characters but, I have to say, none are too convincing. I kept getting the feeling, if anything, that Miami was NOT like Wolfe portrays it. This was a WASP's view and, as he demonstrated in Bonfire of the Vanities, that's a world he knows inside out. But what does Tom Wolfe know of how a Hiatian or a Cuban views the world of South Florida? He failed to convince me that he knew much, really, and he also failed to convince me that he could write with any authority about how young people see the world either. Whichever character's voice he chose to narrate a scene, the voice of Tom Wolfe tended to drown it out. Resultantly, some of his observations seemed to me borderline racist, sexist or ageist, despite the comments being "voiced" by a character who might harbour such a view. The tone of the voice is always Wolfe's. Saying all that.....I was pretty much hooked into the book and its seven hundred or so pages flew past quickly. I can forgive Wolfe a lot because he just writes so well, and I didn't stop to think too much about what was happening as I was more interested in seeing how the plot panned out. When I finished the book, one of my first thoughts was that I just couldn't have spent ten quid for as much entertainment anywhere else. I suppose that sums up this novel for me - sheer entertainment. It's not the Great American Novel that many might be waiting for Wolfe to write, it doesn't capture the "zeitgeist" that Wolfe is often famous for and, being honest, it's a bit of a throwaway, in that I doubt I'll return to read it in future. But, of the fifty or sixty books I'll have read this year, Back to Blood will be in the "Top Three", and I can't give a much better recommendation than that.
In my review on these pages of Middle Age by Joyce Carol Oates, I compare her to Wolfe. They are both cynical journalists, social satirists who mock their characters mostly but permit an occasional glimmer of compassion to show through.
Wolfe's literary predecessor could well be Honore de Balzac, who was so alike in his opinion of human nature and exploitation of its foibles. His preoccupations are encapsulated in one of his titles - A Harlot High and Low.
In Back to Blood, Wolfe savages urban American morality, or lack thereof, by focusing on the melting pot of Miami. In this city there are more recent immigrants than anywhere else. The races cohabit but they mix hardly at all. As one of his characters quips, everybody hates everybody.
Wolfe's main character here is Nestor Camacho, a roguish cop of Cuban ancestry who, like so many of his neighbors in Hialeah, barely speaks a word of Spanish. In many ways, Camacho is a hero, often in spite of himself. His good heart and fierce sense of duty carry him into dangerous situations, intrigues, and trouble with his superiors. Driver of the subplot about a colossal art forgery is preppie newspaperman John Smith, also a rogue, and also prone to find all kinds of trouble, much of it newsworthy and most of the truths inconvenient both for his media bosses and for the mob-style rulers of the social order.
This book's pages are soaked with sex, much of it not so much kinky but weird or gross or both. Wolfe reveals himself to be a dirty old man with a massive vocabulary who will titillate you until you have way too much information.
We are sexual and social animals, he seems to say, with most of our decisions and actions motivated by our most basic and base desires.
At heart, Wolfe is a curmudgeonly moralist. Society, he seems to be saying, still needs cops and journalists, who can occasionally be heroes, if they dare to break the rules.
Wolfe would probably love you to think that he, too, is breaking all the rules. But read some Balzac and you'll realize that he's a faithful practitioner - and a modern master - of a very old form.
I have very mixed feeling about this book. Part of me wanted to give it a lower rating. Some elements of the writing style annoyed me to no end. Yes, Tom Wolfe has always liked unusual punctuation and exclamation points, but the BOOM BUMP CRASH repeated ad nauseam in some chapters just got on my nerves. I get it, the strip-club was loud. The music was repetitive. Annoying. Well, done, Mr. Wolfe, you did transmit that sense of annoyance very well. I got annoyed.
Second, you cannot help by feeling that the vintage point is that of, well, Tom Wolfe. A relic of a WASP generation that does not represent most of us looking at Miami... from a very narrow, prejudicial point of view. I think there are more stereotypes and prejudices in his mind than in the city itself... or, perhaps, he just sees what he is looking for. This is not the city I saw... it's a caricature.
Third, some of the sexual undertone... you cannot help but feeling the author is having a wet dream while writing this... too much insight into the mind of a... well... it's not for me to judge. Sure is, I would not let my daughter go to dinner with Mr. Wolfe.
But there is something hooking in the story and the characters. Something that makes you want to keep reading. Something that makes you look. Kind of the way you look at Jerry Springer's, fascinated by the self-destruction. And there is some sympathy for the main characters, a desire to see how it all unfolds.
Except... it doesn't. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to tell people that the book just does not offer closure, an ending, a conclusion. It's a big buildup, to nothing happening. We should rejoice to have seen a little window of Miami. Except that the sketch is not THAT good.
Not worth reading. Sorry an icon has stepped to this level. But this book is just not up to par with previous work.
I have read reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood that have been all over the place. One reviewer called it “a shrewd, riling, and exciting tale of a volatile, divisive, sun-seared city where ‘everybody hates everybody.’” Another went so far as to call it “pure bile.” There is certainly some bile in there as Mr. Wolfe exposes the foibles of just about every socioeconomic and ethnic group in today’s Miami. And the reviews that criticize the book as being hard to read are not altogether wrong as the author tends to intersperse dialog with hacking coughs, Russian and Spanish phrases that may or may not be explained, and strange punctuation, such as six colons :::::: before and after the character’s rumination. That being said, I enjoyed the book immensely. Mr. Wolfe may be the best contemporary author in dissecting a particular culture, whether the New York City bond traders in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the real estate industry in Atlanta in A Man in Full, or the college sports and social scene in I am Charlotte Simmons (and after having read it, I’m not letting my daughter go to college!). And how he pulled together a plot involving a Hispanic cop that was suspended for being prejudiced against blacks, his girlfriend that dumped him for a Russian oligarch that had donated fakes of Russian masters paintings to a Miami Museum, the forger of those paintings, and the editor of the Miami Herald, whose reporter uncovers the scam, is amazing. What I would like to see Mr. Wolfe do in his next book is skewer Washington, DC, with its dysfunctional politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and the like. But even with its flaws, this book is five stars for me.
Back to Blood is a devastating critique of current Miami and American society. For those who recall what Tom Wolfe did for New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, this is Miami’s less violent but more corruptly vain star-turn.
Our protagonists are two Cuban-Americans from all-Cuban Hialeah. The book unfolds with their coming-of-age into greater Miami and out of their insular hometown. One, Hector Camacho, is a super-bulked up Miami cop who is ostracized by the community for saving the life of a Cuban defector and, in the process, giving him a Back to the Island Prison card. The other, Magdalena, is his drop-dead beautiful neighborhood girlfriend, who promptly dumps him in the opening chapters to shack up with her boss, the famous Schlocktor Lewis, purveyor of and shrink to porn addicts.
Our heroes, while swept up in the vanity, conceit, and lewdness of contemporary culture, maintain enough of their Hialeah upbringing to cast a gimlet eye on the prevailing perversities. In one of the more horrific scenes, Schlock Doctor Lewis speeds Magdalena one late afternoon on his cigarette boat to Elliot Cay's Columbus Day boat party, where the Anglo girls and boys are gearing up for an all-night orgy. While Magdalena at first struts her stuff, when she realizes by sunset how low this regatta will go, her paramour informs her it is too dangerous to boat back to Miami in the dark and they will have to spend the night. Holding on to her Catholic upbringing by a thread, she offers to sleep in the cigarette boat while the good Doctor does his research.
Miami’s trendy art scene wins Wolfe’s extra-withering gaze. Accompanying one of their billionaire patients, Lewis and Magdalena line up for an art-buying scrum prior to Art Basel’s opening bang. Their billionaire host is accompanied by a svelte, sharp art advisor who leads him through the stampede (reminiscent of a Wal Mart holiday sale) to snatch up millions in pornographic art before other billionaires can consume them. Our dear Magdalena, again, has the courage to call it what it is, and her critique animates a fancy dinner party like organic fruit.
The cast of sordid characters is wondrously lengthy. Top dog goes to a Russian oligarch who donates $70 million in forgeries to a new Miami art museum that puts his name in stone. It is left to the only sympathetic Anglo character, a preppy novice reporter blandly named John Smith, to expose the Oligarch with Nestor’s key sleuthing. Problem is, the editor of the Miami rag called the Herald is so star-struck, along with the rest of Miami’s glitterati, by the Russian’s comet that he discourages young John’s pursuit of the story.
The last sympathetic major character is the black Police chief, who eventually stiffens his own spine and comes to the defense of Office Camacho against the diktats of Miami’s amoral Major Cruz. (Yes, Miami’s citizens have many crosses to bear.) As you can imagine, the Back to Blood title refers to the balkanization of the world’s most Immigrant City.
This is a rollicking good read which skewers popular culture. There are more swears per page than in recent memory, but in the hands of a master they were hardly noticeable: they flowed naturally as if man’s true nature. (Even our hero Nestor can’t avoid the rising slime with a ringtone song that opens with “Caliente! Caliente baby / Got plenty fuego in yo caja china / Means you needs a length a Hose put in it...”)
Magdalena, unfortunately, bathes too long in the shallowness of American femalehood and, while escaping the psychotic Porn Doctor, falls into the arms of the Russian playboy. By the time she wakes up, her chances for a decent life with Nestor are gone.
Such is the dark message at the core of Wolfe’s humorous and humane take on the world we have created: is it too far gone for redemption?
Oh, and don’t bother with the Literary Critic reviews. A year back a former WaPo editor seethed with contempt for Wolfe in a Wall Street write-up (title: “A Wasp With No Sting”), dismissing it with a Hunter Thompson quote: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Wolfe is way too un-PC for such effetes, it gets their cackles up.
There are glimpses of trademark Wolfe in this otherwise mediocre novel marred by a disjointed narrative and painfully inauthentic dialogue: the intersecting sub plots; the bold social commentary, such as Wolfe's theory on why journalists tend to be politically liberal; the author's willingness to eschew political correctness in ridiculing uncouth elements of young male African American culture through the eyes of a black Haitian father concerned about the culture's harmful influence on his teenage son.
Then there is Tom Wolfe's skewering of abstract "art," which I found particularly satisfying.
Beyond the glimpses, however, Back to Blood is entirely disappointing--even more so than the critically panned I am Charlotte Simmons.
The story has potential, and at times feels like it's going to suck you in, but Wolfe fails to sustain interest. Instead of twists and unexpected surprises, there are forced serendipitous encounters and clumsily connected subplots.
Yet the main problem with Back to Blood is not the story, which is at least mildly entertaining. It is Tom Wolfe's writing style. One of his weaknesses as a writer has always been his propensity to tell, rather than show. In this latest novel, this weakness is magnified and taken to a new extreme, as Tom Wolfe describes in superfluous detail every emotion felt by his characters. The result is forced and lacking artistic nuance.
Most importantly, Wolfe's dialogue is inauthentic, at times laughably so. The characters non-ironically use outdated words and phrases like "it's the tops" and "gee," which makes one wonder if the old master is not in touch with the contemporary lexicon. It would have helped Tom Wolfe to watch an episode of "The Wire" to get an idea of how cops actually talk. We know he does meticulous, firsthand research before delving into a novel, and that he no doubt talked to Miami police officers before starting on this project. Still, he fails to capture contemporary vernacular.
Wolfe's incessant use of "loins" to denote sexual arousal is not just antiquated, it's cringe-worthy. Here, his editors must share responsibility for not cautioning Wolfe that "loins" should only be used ironically, which is to say not used in a Tom Wolfe novel.
Wolfe's language problems transcend English. A Russian character exclaims "oh govno," "oh govno" over and over again during a sexual encounter. "Oh govno" literally means "oh s***," which makes contextual sense in English. But in Russian, "oh govno" "oh govno" is not an expression one uses when sexually aroused. It's astounding that Wolfe and his editors thought that the literal translation of "s***" would have the equivalent idiomatic meaning in Russian.
Finally, beyond the anti-climactic story and the inauthentic dialogue, Wolfe's characters are just not believable. The clearest example of this is Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, who, as Wolfe reminds us over and over again, is terribly unsophisticated. In fact, she is so unsophisticated that she doesn't know what a "metaphor" is. Really? A psychiatric nurse and a native English speaker has never heard of a metaphor? This is not believable, and it is perhaps the unintended consequence of Wolfe's habit to tell too much at the expense of artful subtlety.
Well, I can finally say that I've read Tom Wolfe, though I can't say it has amounted to much. It's a name often bandied about and always spoken of with a casual affectless enjoyment of things you haven't probably heard about.
I can say that Wolfe has some interesting ideas and does an applaudable bit of research. At no point was I doubting any of the hard work that he did to make this book appear for all purposes as if he knew every last detail about cuban life in Florida as well as the bourgeois middle class that was so irritated with them. The nuances of being Cuban, of balancing tradition with present, was also well done and respectable. The thing most impressive though was his repetition and cadence. I do love me a good prose, and there were times where the repetition (an all too neglected device) was done as close to perfect as an author can get. There were other times it could have been toned down, like the boat scene which introduces Nestor.
I suppose the problem was merely that I had no idea what I was doing reading this book. Halfway through I had no idea what was going on, where the focus was going, or even if that weird journalist kid that blushed a lot was going to be a major character or one that whack-a-moled up and out of the narrative as his editor-boss already had (a bad decision to start with him Wolfe). So yes, the jumping from characters was poorly done and poorly timed, mostly because I couldn't figure out for a long while if I should be getting comfortable and settling in with a character or waving them goodbye.
The characters were amusing, but about as amusing as a sitcom character is. They were quirks and large defining traits and little, if any, substance.
If the book had only stayed focused on something like Nestor and his dual-cultural identities, the book probably would have been both good and entertaining, even with the few missteps that Wolfe took, but he decided to wander around, tasting a bit of Russian philanthropist here and quack psychologist there. Too many different tastes always makes my stomach uneasy, and the same, it seems, is true of my mind.
Tom Wolfe's searing sarcasm has never been more scathing as he lambasts 60 minutes as little pissing monkeys and how the word iconic is used only by maggots. The hero of the story combats is own unappreciative family, office politics that make you cringe but, in the end, ends up with the right woman while his ex-girlfriend, the sexy siren is left to contemplate her shallow existence. Once again Wolfe proves he has "The Right Stuff" in this highly entertaining novel.
The fourth of his recent string of fiction and it continues his style of in-your-face fictionalizing of how we currently live in the 21st century. At least in Miami Beach. The first chapter sets the pace for the entire book, with the main character zooming across Biscayne Bay. Every 8th word being SMACK, as the speed-boat slams into the azure blue sunlit water. Add a Russian art-swindling oligarch, the riotous communities of Overtown and Liberty City, Art Basel Miami Beach, a svelte Cuban nurse in love with three of the characters at different times, a psychiatrist treating a porn-addicted billionaire, a strip-club, a Yale marinated newspaper editor and cub reporter, both WASPY, toss it all together with the Miami heat lamp and you get the idea. Wolfe is able to add concise prose describing all that both he and I see as wrong with this country only he says it in a much more sarcastic manner which I do enjoy.
The ending surprised me, really, I read the last three paragraphs several times to see if there was something I missed which may have given me a clue. There was not. Very long, 70o+ pages, but in line with the sociology of Bonfire and AMIF. Not his best, the overuse of punctuation started annoying me after 50 pages - but a worth the read.
If you have ever read The Right Stuff, then you are a fan of Tom Wolfe. The Right Stuff is one of the best books that I have ever read. Wolfe turned Chuck Yeager into an American folk hero. If you are an Atlantan, you read A Man in Full. A Man in Full was a good book, not a great book about Atlanta and its environs. Wolfe's lastest book, Back to Blood, is Wolfe's irreverent take on Miami with all of its warts and racial undertones. Like A Man in Full, Wolfe is an incredible observer of all that goes on the surface and, more importantly, what really goes on under the surface. Miami is a bubbling cauldron of different identities, Cubans, Haitians, Anglos, and even Russians. Half of the population are recent immigrants. Wolfe's chapter on the annual modern art show(Art Basel) in Miami Beach is priceless. Billionaires fighting and paying obscene amounts of money for what sounds like pornographic junk is worth the read. No one is safe from Wolfe's spot on observations. Sacred cows are humorously led to the slaughter house. A very fun read, especially for people that live in Miami and those who have visited.
Is Wolfe a good writer? It's an interesting question. Certainly (as he would be the first to tell us) he's more in touch with reality than the vast majority of his competitors. And his sociological interpretive lense which reduces human behavior to status competition is about as accurate as a reductive schema can get. However, he is too doctrinaire in its application. What's interesting about people is the fluff they build on top of their naked power struggles. It is in life extremely rare to meet people in touch with of their basic motivators in the way that every Wolfe character is, and when you do, they're mostly sociopaths.
A couple of storylines aren't developed as well as they could be, in particular that of the upwardly mobile Haitian professor.
My guess is Wolfe is looking at Miami to get a sense of what our Hispanic future might look like. As an Anglo, it seems that while I won't be running things anymore, I'll still be on top of the status-hierarchy. So... there's that.
Oh my gosh! This book is a hot mess. I've enjoyed Tom Wolfe in the past, but oh dear how the mighty have fallen. There are several negative things I could say about the book, but the thing that bugged me the most, and to the point of wanting to scream, was that Wolfe must have just reviewed an anatomy textbook or something because all body parts are referred to by their anatomically correct terms to the point of craziness. I am not kidding when I say that "mons pubis" is used in the book around 20 times. What?? And one last thing, I think Wolfe got tired of his subject matter or this book because it doesn't end as much as it falls off a cliff. One minute you are reading the story and the next minute, the author has typed "The End" and gone to med school to learn the names of all the hand bones.
Tom Wolfe takes me to places I would never find myself in even though Tom Wolfe and I are contemporaries, sort of. He travels with the movers and shakers, with the well-off and the young strivers. In the worlds he describes for us, people don’t sit at home and watch TV. They dress up, they go places and sometimes they go to the wrong places or they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first novel by Tom Wolfe that I read was The Bonfire of the Vanities about a hit and run accident by a wealthy man on an expressway ramp in a not-so-wealthy neighborhood in NYC. Interesting and way more complex than this very brief description, this book is also quite edgy.
His most recent novel, Back to Blood, is just as contemporary, but it is set in Miami. Miami gives greater scope as Tom Wolfe mixes social and ethnic groups in the heat and sprawl of the diverse Miami neighborhoods. We begin with Nestor Comacho and Magdalena, both Cubans, and with Nestor’s fellow police officers in the Marine Patrol. Nestor, even though he is distracted by his love for Magdalena who has been acting cool lately, has a good head on his shoulders and, although he is a small guy, he is buff and powerful. He really wants to be a good policeman, but most of his fellow policemen are Anglos. Nestor does the most heroic things and they all turn out badly. He is always getting in trouble with one ethnic group or another. He gets on the wrong side of his own Cuban people first and next he gets on the wrong side of the African American community. He loses Magdalena, who is following her own opportunities to climb the social ladder, with as little luck as Nestor. She is able to see through people, but still manages to complicate her life.
Mr. Wolfe also introduces us, and Nestor, to the Lantier family, members of the Haitian population of Miami, a refined family with a father who is a Professor of French and Creole (against his will). These are light-skinned Haitians and papa likes to make his superiority very clear. His son is hanging with the gang bangers at the local high school so he won’t get beat up, and his beautiful, white-skinned daughter Ghislaine is hanging with the socialites who do charity work with children in poor neighborhoods. When Nestor busts a crack dealer, Ghislaine just happens to be at her first assignment. Once again his heroism does not affect his career the way it should. But he does meet Ghislaine.
We also have crazy Russians, art nuts, a Columbus Day regatta which turns into a pornographic romp, a psychiatrist who treats wealthy people who are addicted to porn, a Cuban mayor and an African American Police Chief who are often at odds and two Yalie journalists from different generations. We travel from rich neighborhoods to poor neighborhoods to Cuban, to Haitian, to Russian neighborhoods, to the old folks in the Assisted Living Facility and all of the characters we meet get all mixed up in each other’s lives. It’s sexy, it’s hot, it’s bright and it’s intoxicating. If you are someone who likes sincere and warm this will not be your cup of tea, but if you like to hang out on the wild side but with the danger once removed, if you like your coffee Cuban-style, rich and sweet, you will most likely enjoy Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe.
I read Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities about 25 years ago and thought it was brilliant. But I believe I have changed as a reader since then and Wolfe, who is primarily a satirist I think, had moved on from pillorying NYC 1980s society excesses to pillorying early 21st century Miami multi-cultural society’s excesses in Back to Blood. I don’t know if the weaknesses that I detected in Back to Blood are also to be found in Bonfire of the Vanities or if they were the result of a best-selling author whose output his publisher is reluctant to edit.
I did like it, however. Tom Wolfe does know where our weakness are and he gleefully exploits them and takes no prisoners: Russians, Cubans, Haitians and of course, his favorite target, WASPs. I laughed a few times and admired his writing often: “seated in the luxurious oxblood-leather-and mahogany maw of this mammoth swivel chair”. But I did find much of the writing to be repetitive, not just in words (if I ever hear “mons pubis” and “mons veneris” again in a work of fiction, it will be too soon and he uses “hypnopompic" at least TWICE…really? Who uses these words who is not a medical professional?) but also in descriptions of characters and situations. And speaking of descriptions, his depictions of female anatomy and the male gaze came off as icky most of the time.
I listened to about three quarters of the book on audio and I think it really improved the experience. The book was narrated by Lou Diamond Phillips and he did a fantastic job. I read this book because a work colleague loaned it to me three…possibly as many as three years ago! My friends IRL, do not loan me books (or DVDs for that matter) if you ever expect to get them back.
It's hard to figure why Tom Wolfe's "Back to Blood" made so many critics' favorites lists in 2012. Faulkner or Balzac, this author is not. His latest novel, in fact, is bloated, campy, arch, and mostly contemptuous of a series of stock characters. (How can a reader be expected to warm to characters Wolfe himself plainly finds lacking?) As social history, it resembles the reality television series ("Masters of the Univ--", uh, "Masters of Disasters") Wolfe dissects and parodies at one point -- unsubtle, way over the top, no more genuine than pro wrestling. As crime fiction, it posits the gem of a good idea, but the truth comes out, not through classic gumshoe plodding or classic Sherlockian ratiocination, but rather through a few easy coincidences and an endless supply of vodka. The police procedural, such as it is, serves mainly to allow Wolfe to move the action from an underdressed strip club to an underdressed gated waterfront community to the penthouse apartment of an underdressed Russian oligarch on sexual steroids to the office of the editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald, where mercifully everyone is fully and properly dressed.
There is too much snickering and not enough subtlety in "Back to Blood." If I had been Wolfe's editor, I would have cut half of the first 500 pages. By contrast, the ending felt rushed.