Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown and Company, 704 pp.
Once known as the doyen of “new journalism”, Tom Wolfe’s forays into fiction have allowed him to cleverly adapt many of the techniques he pioneered in his nonfiction works. His previous targets have included New York investment bankers in the 1980s (“The Bonfire of the Vanities”); Atlanta real estate scams in the 1990s (“A Man in Full”); and the wild world of the college campus in the early 2000s (“I Am Charlotte Simmons”). In “Back to Blood”, Wolfe is in top form as he vivisects the many ethnic groups that call Miami home. What he finds is not a melting pot, but racial communities at war with one another.
The book is built around two protagonists who at the beginning of the book are in a relationship. Nestor Camacho is a muscle-bound cop who is head-over-heels in love with drop-dead gorgeous Magdalena Otero.
Early in the book, Nestor and Magdalena are set adrift from their communities. In an act of physical heroism, Nestor saves a Cuban refugee who has tied himself to the mast of a sailing ship. By bringing the refugee down before he can make land, Nestor inadvertently condemns the man to be sent back to an uncertain future in Castro’s Cuba. Hailed as a hero by the Anglo press, he is reviled by the Cuban community and is thrown out of home by his parents. And so, like a Latin American Odysseus, Nestor drifts into the ethic gulag of Miami. Magdalena’s decision to leave Nestor for her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, turns out just as bad. Considered a whore by her parents, she becomes a kept woman first by Lewis, a psychiatrist who treats wealthy clients suffering from porn addiction, and then by a Russian oligarch whose shady deals in fine arts is a major subplot of the book.
Turned out of their self-contained ethnic worlds, Nestor and Magdalena find the only thing uniting the Cuban, Haitian, Anglo, Russian and Anglo communities is mutual hate for one another, even as they live side-by-side in uncomfortable proximity.
Wolfe’s books are not a quiet read, and “Back to Blood” is no exception. Whole scenes are punctuated by sounds. As Nestor is out on patrol, his boat SMACKs time and time again against the waves, and Dr. Lewis is apt to indulge in a self-satisfied chuckle “HahhhHHHockhockhock hock hock”. Some critics have found this affectation annoying, but they fail to appreciate how Wolfe’s use of sounds creates a rhythm that gives his prose its distinctive voice. For those who are new to Wolfe time, it takes a little time to acclimatize to his exclamatory style and unconventional punctuation, but it is worth persisting as it provides a richness and atmosphere to the story.
Like Zola or Dickens, Wolfe introduces his readers to a motley cast of characters. There is the city’s Cuban mayor and his black police chief who are at war with one another. There is a Haitian academic who passes his daughter off as white. And, there are brutish Russian oligarchs who collect fine art as trophies to show-off their new-found wealth.
If the book has a weakness, it is Wolfe’s failure to go beyond caricature, although Comacho is more nuanced in his character development.
One of Wolfe’s targets is the pretensions of modern art. This is a subject Wolfe addressed in his nonfiction works, most notably in The Painted Word. One of the funniest scenes in “Back to Blood” takes place in the opening of the Miami-Basel art fair where billionaires stampede to snap up works of the latest art sensations. Through the innocent eyes of Magdalena, they look like blind “wriggling, slithering, writhing, squiggling, ravelling, wresting swarm of maggots rooting over and under one another in a heedless literally headless, frenzy to get at the dead meat”. As you can see, Wolfe’s satire is anything but subtle; nevertheless he hits his targets with unerring accuracy.
The book is just over 700 pages long, but with so many foibles to satirize, for me, Wolfe could easily have kept going without losing my interest. The author is now in his 80s, so this may be the last chance to read the books of a writer who delightfully exposes the grotesque underbelly of modern America.