Back to Blood
By Tom Wolfe
704 pages, $30
By Bradshaw Hovey
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
The thing you have to understand about Miami, explains one of the characters in Tom Wolfe’s social-manners-police-thriller-human-comedy-mystery-story, “Back to Blood,” is that everybody in Miami hates everyone else.
The blacks hate the Cubans, the Cubans hate the blacks, the light-skinned Haitians hate the dark-skinned Haitians, and everyone – Cubans, blacks, Russians, Nicaraguans, Colombians and Haitians – hates the Americanos.
The novel opens with the protagonist, a muscular young Cuban-American cop named Nestor Camacho, bravely rescuing a Cuban refugee from the 70-foot tall mast of a schooner in Biscayne Bay – with television cameras and news photographers capturing the whole thing including his chiseled lats.
His hero status is short-lived, however, as his fellow Cubans condemn him for stopping the supposed refugee just short of dry land and automatic sanctuary. The man is returned to Cuba, Camacho’s family disowns him, his girlfriend dumps him, his fellow cops shun him and we are off.
Like “A Man in Full” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Back to Blood” attempts to reveal a particular slice of American life or, as an architect might think of it, society-in-section view with all the levels and compartments visible from the side. Wolfe reveals the layers with the same careful rendering of the details of food, clothing, homes, cars, behavior, and the representation of self he has used in both fiction and nonfiction. Still, it is Wolfe’s own cultural ant farm with the same petty boy-with-a-magnifying-glass sensibility.
The plot is serviceable, weaving an entertaining tale, but stretching credulity because a tidy 704-page book with these ambitions needs to connect so many people and places in such a short time – porn-addicted billionaires, alcoholic art-forgers, young Haitian wannabe gangbangers, reality show producers, preppy newspaper reporters, Cuban politicians, Russian oligarchs, hedge fund masters and celebrity psychologists.
Making those links would have been impossible without our two sort-of heroes, the Cuban cop and the Cuban nurse, who leap across the boundaries of caste, class and clan with ease that’s hard to believe. Nestor and Magdalena Otero are handy Zeligs equipped mostly with pluck and great bodies.
“Back to Blood” is, in part, popular anthropology, and Wolfe is our happy ethnographer getting down among the natives in their natural habitats – strip clubs, crack houses, art galleries, pig roasts, gated islands, floating orgies, dive bars, and on and on.
Clifford Geertz, the celebrated anthropologist, talked about anthropological writing as a matter of “thick description,” something to capture the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, of cultural ways of life. Wolfe’s description is nothing if not thick – at least he lays it on thick; a few moments in a single conversation are expanded to several pages of text – yet the end result is somehow thin.
“Back to Blood” would be fodder for a great television series like “The Wire” if it weren’t for the less than three-dimensional quality of his characters. There’s so much whooping and hollering in Wolfe’s prose, so much mockery of those involved, that the people in the story seem almost cartoonish.
Forty years after “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Tom Wolfe really hasn’t changed. He’s still blurring the lines between fiction and journalism, still pumping prose through a fire hose, still playing the same little textual tricks, the repetitive use of repetition, the SOUND EFFECTS in all capital letters, and the liberal reinterpretation of punctuation. Six-packs of colons like THAT :::::: what the hell could he be thinking? :::::: demarcate the interior thoughts of the characters from the inter-subjective exchanges.
The other thing you have to understand about Miami – at least Wolfe’s Miami – is that the people hate themselves. The narrative line describes his characters from the outside and in their dialogue with other characters but simultaneously he reveals their interior monologues of insecurity, doubt, self-loathing, guilt and shame.
One wonders how Wolfe himself feels about his characters. He sees them in their fundamental states of emotional undress and he seems, most of the time, not very sympathetic, a little superior.
What is to be done when the hatred in a community is irresolvable? Not a melting pot, one of Wolfe’s people suggests, nor the popular alternative of a tossed salad. Maybe it’s welding – with the place in society of each one of the groups welded firmly enough to the civic substrate to give them security and dignity and maybe even self-love.
So, what is this book? Mystery story? Social documentation? Bodice ripper? Literature? Dime novel? Guilty pleasure? Maybe all of that. Take your pick.
Bradshaw Hovey is a planner at the University at Buffalo and a former Courier Express reporter.