Back to Blood

  • Tom Wolfe
  • Little, Brown
  • 704 pp.

With idiosyncratic flair, the master reporter of the modern zeitgeist turns his sights to Miami and the human striving for status.

I dreamed I was in Tom Wolfe’s outlandishly superficial, depressing new novel, Back to Blood. (Note: the following two paragraphs contain material that may not be, er, suitable for all readers. Reader discretion is advised.)

I was on I 95, deeply tanned in a shirt two sizes too small, behind the wheel of a Ferrari 403 marooned marooned marooned marooned in Miami traffic baking under the south Florida heat lamp tropical sun, A/C on full blast, going nowhere fast.  Then THUMP … BEAT … THRUST … SMACK … it’s the middle of the night and I am frantically searching for a place to park … SMACK :::: what, no valet at this place? :::: C R A A A S H! My glass-faced iPhone murmurs soothingly pling plingpling pling pling. Dios mio.

I am an art investor of some repute though I used to be a cop and have arrived at what I understood was to be Chez Toi, a trendsetting, terribly cosmopolitan Miami hotspot but it turns out to be an IHOP in a strip mall in Broward County, and that there’s a 700 PAGE WAIT for a table. It’s evident I’ve been had.

Mee-ah-mee — city of the lowest common denominator. Though everybody looks marvelous and everybody is on the make.

Then I woke up.

Dios mio.

But here’s the thing. No matter how much I may complain about the strikingly lousy payoff of this bloated, overweight novel with a flamboyant cover no one will mistake for anything else, no matter how much I may insist that Back to Blood is about as shallow as Biscayne Bay at low tide in a full moon August, Tom Wolfe, assumed to always have his reportorial finger on the zeitgeist, may have succeeded in getting in our face — holding up for our consideration, a glittery, flocked orange and teal-shaded funhouse mirror. And the view is uncomfortable and despite all the beautiful beautiful beautiful people — it ain’t pretty.

Not surprising. Think Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the documenting of the first flowering of late-20th-century financial wizardry and a new, uncompromising breed of Wall Street wolves, Masters of the Universe. Back to Blood attempts to document Miami, a not-so-efficient melting pot city of a new world — a swampy miasma of races, exiles, crime, art and money in the early days of the 21st century. Wolfe, delivering his Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2006, said, “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.” And that is exactly what Back to Blood is about.

Status. And that’s it. This novel attempts no serious sociologic exploration of what the future may hold for Miami — perhaps the pointy tip of the spear as we move to an ever more diverse America. There appears to be little consequential fictional intent, only mere twists, distortions and comic-book illusions of the petty lives of people about  whom we care not a whit.

The plot? Don’t worry too much. It mostly has to do with Nestor Camacho, a young and reasonably earnest but hapless, ripped young Miami cop who mostly tries to do the right thing but gets into Big Trouble. Magdalena, his knockout, Latina, sex-addiction nurse girlfriend who works for a creepy quack shrink, who, Dante-like, escorts her on a cigarette-boat floating tour of mass orgies, a gang of Russian oligarch art investors/thugs/forgers, the Miami mayor, the chief of police; cops, cars, cell phones, Anglos, African-Americans, Cubans, Haitian immigrants, cell phones, strippers, newspapermen, lowlifes, aging Active Adults and cell phones, form the vast cast.

Wolfe’s initially charming typographic tics (see above) portend a wild, perhaps metafictional, ride; but, ultimately, in Wolfe’s hands, it’s just an annoying roller-coaster you can’t wait to get off. There is very little magical writing: pretty much a reportorial this-happens-then-that-happens, very few memorable passages amidst the arid desert of his prose. Here’s a good one:

“Imagine a picture book with the same photograph on every page … every page … high noon beneath a flawless cloudless bright blue sky … on every page … a tropical sun that turns those rare old birds, pedestrians, into stumpy, abstract black shadows on the sidewalk … on every page …”

Sadly, this doesn’t go on. Bummer.

But maybe this is Wolfe’s point — look, this is happening, this race to the bottom of surface-only consciousness — not that that’s big news, but it’s happening on a grand accelerated scale and it’s going to get worse. Welcome to the moronic inferno.

True enough, but not enough to save the novel.

Saul Bellow, speaking of “the contemporary crisis of distraction” way back in pre-interwebular, antediluvian 1990, said a writer must compete with dark powers, a nonstop blast of mindless entertainment and information. “They are the powers of an electrified world and of a transformation of human life the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.”

In Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe does not compete with those dark powers. He embraces them. If only it made a better book.


Barry Wightman, the fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal of the arts in Montpelier, Vt., has written a novel, Pepperland, a revolutionary, technology rock ’n roll love story, coming in spring 2013. He’s been a corporate-marketing guy and a contributing essayist to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, and he leads a rather vintage rock ’n roll band.

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