Published: October 23, 2012
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.
“In Back to Blood, the octogenarian novelist has characters sporting the “double-stubble” of deliberate unshavenness; defriending one another on Facebook; wearing rasta-rap T-shirts that say UZ MUVVUZ; and filming a reality show called “Masters of Disaster,” on which ruined billionaires begin their public resurrection.
To this self-proclaimed devotee of Balzac, milieu has always been all: New York investment banking in the 1980s (“The Bonfire of the Vanities”); Atlanta real estate in the ’90s (“A Man in Full”); the hookup college campus of the early naughts (“I Am Charlotte Simmons”). Wolfe has now headed to Miami, not to retire but to watch the gaudy clash of that city’s different ethnic and financial populations. Nestor Camacho, an overbuilt, well-meaning Cuban-American cop, is his main character, the figure who gets tangled up in all the novel’s plotlines.
Nestor achieves instant local fame when he climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner in Biscayne Bay to rescue, and arrest, a small, shadowy man seeking asylum from Castro’s regime. But the athletic bravery that makes him a hero on the pages of The Miami Herald turns Nestor into a pariah within his own Cuban-American enclave of Hialeah: “You arrest a guy 18 metros de libertad!” scolds his father.
The predicament is interesting, but Wolfe doesn’t fully develop its possibilities. Before long, he’s got Nestor arresting a “6-foot-5, 275-pound accused drug dealer who was in the process of choking a brother officer to death” — and then getting suspended from the force when a YouTube video of the incident, containing his partner’s nasty racial abuse of the suspect, puts Nestor in the middle of a power struggle between Miami’s black police chief and the city’s Cuban-American mayor.
As if this weren’t enough woe, Wolfe also draws Nestor into an art-fraud investigation being conducted by John Smith, the Herald reporter who wrote up his Biscayne Bay heroics. Miami has just named a huge new museum for a Russian plutocrat, Sergei Korolyov, and it now seems that the modern paintings he’s donated are forgeries. This art plot gives Wolfe an opportunity to stage some boisterously venal scenes, but a lot of its action might be happening in any big American city, not just the Miami he’s otherwise so busy particularizing. Moreover, even with its contemporary dollop of Russian dressing, this portion of the novel feels a little tired: Wolfe has been banging the drum against modern art since “The Painted Word” appeared in 1975, back in his nonfiction days. He has admitted that an art-world story line had to be excised from a draft of the already overstuffed “Man in Full,” and the one here in “Back to Blood” might have been cut loose too.
Magdalena Otero, Nestor’s estranged girlfriend, also has more than enough on her plate, even before Wolfe mixes her up with Sergei Korolyov. Eager to transcend the blinkered world of Hialeah, she’s already gotten involved with her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, a psychiatrist who puts wealthy clients seeking relief from porn addiction in thrall to himself instead. Magdalena’s position as Norman’s girlfriend and nurse forces her to wade into “the pustular oozing of complete freedom” and allows Wolfe to concoct some incidents as squalid as anything in the old Miami-set series “Nip/Tuck.”
But what remains most interesting about Magdalena is her hunger for assimilation and distinction — the great never-ending American status drama. Wolfe shows her listening to a roommate’s urging that she put on a sluttier outfit for a big evening with Norman: “Look, Magdalena, what do you want to look like, some cubana wannabe americanawearing a proper dress from the tag sale at the discount mall?” Wolfe’s title and theme may posit how “the bloodlines that course through our very bodies” are reasserting themselves and driving us toward an ever more volatile identity politics; but this new book really shows how much juice and complication remain in the great national drive to fit in and then rise. The greatest snob in the novel is a mixed-race, Haitian-born professor of French at Everglades Global University who is furious that he’s being made to teach Creole. Professor Lantier overspends to furnish his Art Deco house; invests all his hopes in his light-skinned daughter; and is revolted by his son’s desire to sound and look like one of his black classmates: “What a mess the two of them were!. . . jeans pulled down so low on their hips you couldn’t help but see their loud boxer shorts . . . obviously the lower and louder, the better. The pants of both boys ended in puddles of denim on the floor.”
The pacing of Back to Blood can be peculiarly slow: its individual sentences are as overstuffed with effects as one of Nestor’s muscle shirts, but the story unfolds with a lot of leisure and recap. Even so, Wolfe remains as skillful as ever in texturing the novel’s terrain, from the “prairie of concrete” formed by Hialeah’s front yards to a tired retirement complex up in Broward County where “the little iron balconettes and the aluminum frames for the sliding doors looked as if they were about to fall off and die in a pile.” Nestor’s grandmother wears exactly the right pair of white jeans, while the sunglasses he sports are “what every cool Cuban cop in Miami wore . . . $29.95 at CVS . . . gold bar, baby!”
Wolfe was one of the New Journalism’s pioneer appropriators of fiction’s “close-third-person” voice, which mimics a character’s patterns of thought and speech to a point where the technique often feels more like the first person. Wolfe’s vocal blendings are typically artful, though sometimes the reader will balk at a clumsy amalgamation. I doubt Nestor would know the word “aubergine” — or think of a woman’s “loamy loins.” NewYorkTimes
This was a joy to listen to because of the fantastic narration of Lou Diamond Phillips. His sound effects and accents were her the top but not a bad way!