“Back to Blood”
Little, Brown, $30
You know fiction is in trouble when the last novel that had any traction with the American public was a soft-porn novel for Mom written in young-adult-level prose. Stories just don’t seem to capture our attention anymore. The reasons have been rigorously speculated over: social media, video technology, rising illiteracy, increased work hours, sheer laziness, etc. Then there is the fascination of current events, which increasingly seem to outstrip even the best novelist’s imagination. When recently asked why he didn’t try his hand at a novel, Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball,” basically said the same thing — that the fiction writers he knew lived in a state of permanent anxiety, always looking over their shoulders at the news in fear that “reality” will suddenly trump their current labors.
Enter into this void Tom Wolfe. Back in the late 1980s, Mr. Wolfe wrote a famous manifesto that echoed Mr. Lewis’s sentiments and set out to correct the problem: Novelists, Mr. Wolfe asserted, had turned too much into the self, ignoring the great world around them. He urged them to get off their duffs and go back to the more reportage-style social novels of the 19th century. Mr. Wolfe had two smashing successes with this formula: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full”; then a more mixed result: “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”
He returns now with “Back to Blood,” set in contemporary Miami.
Readers will be happy to hear that at 81 Mr. Wolfe has lost none of his propulsive storytelling gifts. The pages fly by quite pleasantly; the novel seems much shorter than its 704 pages. The author also has two extremely likable characters at its center: Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American police officer who stumbles into a series of racial conflicts, and his girlfriend, Magdalena, a nurse who leaves him to get a foothold in the social scene of South Beach. Unlike most characters in Mr. Wolfe’s novels, Nestor and Magdalena are treated with both sympathy and complexity (the scenes concerning their extended families, for example, are especially good), and their likability anchors a sometimes unwieldy book.
The plot begins with Nestor bringing down a Cuban refugee from a schooner’s sail mast in Biscayne Bay, a great set piece that gives the author a chance to begin his novel with a wide-lens view of South Beach, literally surveying greater Miami from the top of a mast eight stories high. The other plot threads, however — which include police brutality and art forgery, among others — are less convincing, and the second half of “Back to Blood” can sometimes feel a little perfunctory, as if Mr. Wolfe was determined to write a Big Novel, no matter that a smaller one, say a measly 500-pager, might have been more effective.
More troubling, though, is the increased presence of Mr. Wolfe’s writing tics, namely his insistence on ejaculatory bursts of dialogue and prose that repeat themselves over and over, to the point of irritation. Here, for example, is a description of techno music in a Miami strip club:
“The moment the leader and his orangeade-faced follower entered, BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung began BEATING and thunging into their central nervous systems. It wasn’t a fast beat BEAT-unngh thung and not terribly loud, but it was relentless. It never changed and never stopped going BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung. . . .”
Get it? Techno is crass and repetitive. If you missed it, Mr. Wolfe scatters his next 10 pages with countless more BEAT-unngh thungs, until you’re thoroughly BEAT-unngh thunged yourself and ready to cry dios mio. Another character’s exclamations of “AhhggggHAHAHHHock hock hock hock” also go on interminably, and are not nearly as funny as Mr. Wolfe intends. (Speaking of overkill, the sign outside the strip club is described by the author as “Huge huge huge brilliant brilliant brilliant lurid lurid lurid.”) In fact, there is barely a page in “Back to Blood” that doesn’t feature one sort of onomatopoeic riff or another, and though this may be a fossil from Mr. Wolfe’s gonzo journalism days, it doesn’t make them any less tiresome.
In addition, Mr. Wolfe has not entirely solved his problem with creating inner lives for his characters. Although Nestor and Magdelena are well drawn, most of the other characters in “Back to Blood” are creatures of single motivation. There is the billionaire who is greedy. The police chief who is ambitious. The morally bankrupt artist, the politically expedient mayor, etc. This sort of stereotyping can make for some pretty tepid satire. Suffice it to say that while “Back to Blood” skewers dozens of characters, very little blood is actually drawn (though perhaps with one exception: the sex-addict psychiatrist Dr. Norman Lewis, who is genuinely repulsive). And as for revelations about the human condition, readers will have to settle for insights like this: “As has been true throughout recorded history, rare is the strong man strong enough to shrug off a woman’s tears.”
But in the end, and oftentimes in spite of itself, “Back to Blood” succeeds, mostly because of Mr. Wolfe’s great use of set pieces. As I’ve said, the book’s overstuffed plot will have most readers not caring much about what happens after about page 500, but chances are they will keep reading, primarily because of Mr. Wolfe’s infectious sense of staging. Even a vignette as innocuous as a Miami street scene turns Cinemascope in Mr. Wolfe’s lens:
“. . . every couple of blocks, if you squinted at a certain angle between the gleaming pinkish butter-colored condominium towers that wall off the shining sea from clueless gawkers who come to Miami Beach thinking they can just drive down to the shore and see the beaches and the indolent recliner & umbrella people and the lapping waves and the ocean sparkling and stretching to the horizon in a perfect 180-degree arc . . . if you squint just right, every couple of blocks you can get a skinny, thin-as-a-ballpoint-refill, vertical glimpse of the ocean — blip — and it’s gone . . . on every page . . . glimpse — blip — and it’s gone. . . .”
It is both heartening and a little awe-inspiring to see how curious and intoxicated Tom Wolfe still is about the U.S.A., and “Back to Blood” is chock-full of wide-angled Americana. Be it a Miami art gala, a spring break-like bacchanal, a South Beach restaurant-of-the-moment, a Cuban block party, or even, yes, a strip club, Mr. Wolfe’s perspective is never less than 35-millimeter, and rare indeed is the scene that does not draw you in completely. You keep reading if only to see where the breadth of the author’s fascinations will take him next.
I don’t think it is unfair to say that there are dozens of better fiction writers in the country than Tom Wolfe, perhaps hundreds. Writers with more craft, more insight, more heart, more depth, more poetry. But then no writer alive takes such big bites out of the American hurly-burly as Tom Wolfe, and that is why a hundred years from now, when 99 percent of the fiction of this era is forgotten, his novels will still be read. In fictional terms, he is the great contemporary American Chronicler.
His manifesto has been made manifest; he got off his duff and into the world, and he told us who we are. Posterity will reward him for it.
Kurt Wenzel is the author of the novels “Lit Life,” “Gotham Tragic,” and “Exposure.” He lives in Springs.
Tom Wolfe has a house in Southampton.