Tom Wolfe isn't at his best for all of Back to Blood, but at his best he's the finest novelist working today
“Everybody . . . all of them . . . it’s back to blood! Religion is dying . . . but everybody still has to believe in something . . . So my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us.”
So ends the prologue of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, his deconstruction of Miami. Like any good showman, Tom Wolfe includes his greatest hits in his new tour. Many of the Wolfe favourites are to be found: social gatherings, status anxiety, the feebleness of contemporary art, political posturing, the pimp roll, loamy loins and, of course, racial tension, because it’s not how blood unites us but divides us that concerns Wolfe.
I met Wolfe long enough to shake his hand in Miami in 2004, when he was already sniffing around the city, enticed by its status as one of the fastest growing places in the US and its claim to have more immigrants than any other American city.
Very few novelists offer the sort of news service and forecasting that Wolfe provides. Literary novelists as a group like to look back. Wolfe isn’t even that interested in the present; he’s on the frontline because he’s hoping to catch the future before it has happened.
For a man whose early work included The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, the titles have become more prosaic and compact, yet Wolfe remains the anti-Hemingway: for him more is always more.
Part of the fun in diving into this 700-page novel is trying to spot the main players and the big thrust, because Wolfe can very often lavish immense energy and detail on minor characters or incidents. Who will be the plot-bearer, the heavy hitter? Will it be Nestor Camacho, aspiring cop, a second-generation Cuban who can’t speak Spanish? Will it be Haitian academic Lantier, who loathes teaching Creole? Or celebrity shrink Norman Lewis, who treats porn addicts? The Yale-educated reporter John Smith? Or his boss Ed Topping IV, the editor of the Miami Herald?
The subtext in Wolfe isn’t buried very deep. The prologue opens with Topping on his way to a hip eatery (a typical destination for a Wolfe character) called Balzac. There is no restaurant in Miami called Balzac, but Wolfe is waving his mission statement. Like Balzac he loves his décor, like Balzac he loves art, like Balzac he wants to engulf the whole of society, and Wolfe’s characters, like Balzac’s, are principally worried about making it, about getting farther up the greasy pole. Although Wolfe’s characters have one distinguishing feature, they are preoccupied with appearance, they have a terror of loss of face as much as loss of income. Wolfe is the poet laureate of humiliation.
Back to Blood has an odd mixture of reality and name-changing. I’m amazed the lawyers, considering the fondness for litigation in the US, allowed Wolfe to have so much fun with the Miami Herald and its Spanish-language counterpart El Nuevo Herald, but at a celebrity bash we get Leon Decapito instead of Leonardo DiCaprio (although Leon behaves impeccably).
It’s the young cop, Nestor Camacho, who turns out to be the girder that supports most of the work. The good-natured Nestor has a snakes-and-ladders run with his career as he repeatedly goes from hero to zero. He climbs up a 70 ft-mast by rope to save a Cuban would-be refugee and tarzans him back to the deck safely. Lauded by his fellow cops, his triumph turns to ashes when the entire Cuban community and his family ostracise him because the would-be refugee is returned to Cuba as he failed to reach dry land and thus qualify for asylum.
Nestor redeems himself by wrestling to the ground an enormous black drug dealer who was strangling another cop. Unfortunately, the last moments of the arrest, when he’s angrily abusing the cuffed and winded dealer lying at his feet, are posted on YouTube. Rodney King lite. But Nestor will get one more redemption.
Furious exchanges between the mayor and the chief of police have become de rigueur in all cop fiction since Dirty Harry, but Wolfe does this set piece so well that you don’t mind he’s rehashing familiar material. And for a writer who’s 81, he’s bang on about the music the kids are listening to in Miami.
Fiction gives you some leeway, but one or two things didn’t convince me. Nestor’s girlfriend Magdalena is meant to be an unworldly, blue-collar ingénue who is whisked away from Nestor by her employer, the hustling Dr Lewis, to go social climbing. Wolfe uses Magdalena’s ignorance as a way of informing the reader.
I could just believe that someone who grew up in Miami might not have heard of one of the following: Fisher Island, Art Basel Miami Beach or the Design District. But the idea that she hasn’t heard of any of them is a bit of a stretch. Miami isn’t New York or LA, it’s just not that big that you could grow up there without someone at least mentioning these landmarks to you.
Writing a brilliant passage has a drawback: it makes the more pedestrian lines in a book even more pedestrian. That Wolfe’s editor let him down is not surprising (no one in the publishing world has the cojones to tap a titan on the shoulder and say uh-uh) but it’s odd that Wolfe himself hasn’t perceived the vast stretches of prose that don’t contribute much or anything to the work.
The bed scene between Magdalena and a Russian oligarch is not only irrelevant but almost reads like a Harold Robbins novel (and Wolfe has already won one Bad Sex award). Similarly the girly exchanges between Magdalena and her flatmate are way over length, and the extensive family life of Nestor doesn’t justify the space. The whole tome could shed a hundred pages and be much stronger for it. And the irony is that it’s the blasts of genius that show up the filler.
At his best, and he’s very much at his best in most of Back to Blood, there’s no one as good as Wolfe. For bringing the world, or at least a world, to the page, Wolfe is the boss. Balzac, plus laughs. Roth, DeLillo, Ford, the other contenders, whatever their accomplishments, just look a bit lacklustre or limited in comparison. Wolfe’s ambition, his imagination, his power, his eye, his ear, his spunk, his vocabulary are unmatched. I’d maintain that Wolfe is the greatest living writer in the English language, and I bow before a master.