We een Mee-AH-mee Now!” So scream the first words of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s latest CAPS-LOCKED! exclamation pointed! damnably-SHOUTY! attempt to take America’s thready pulse. Buried deep in its 700 pages is where Wolfe gives the whole game away: “In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”
Wolfe’s method – and his madness – hasn’t changed much since The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998). His Miami – like his New York and Atlanta – isn’t a melting pot but a boiling cauldron of racial, ethnic and class tension some Candide will obligingly fall into. This time out, our holy fool is Nestor Camacho, a good-natured but implausibly dim second-generation Cuban-American police offier. At least, he is until the “Yale-marinated” guilty white liberal media and a rainbow coalition of hucksters straight out of 1970’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers go to work.
Magdalena, the love of Nestor’s life, is undone by sex, not racial politics. Although not a professional like her namesake, she is determined to climb the social ladder by screwing her way down the evolutionary one to a Russian oligarch involved in a massive art fraud.
There’s a lot more plot, and an endless, and enervating, parade of ethnic caricatures all bellowing “Everybody hates everybody! BACK TO BLOOD!” at the top of their voices. Seven hundred pages of crack dens, orgies on super-yachts, hustlers at work from City Hall to the hilariously pretentious Miami Art Basel Fair, and what’s left? Detailed, on-scene, high-energy reporting! An unflinching look into America’s racial vortex!!!! Yesssssss?
Nooooooo. But by the time our Hispanic Candide and Cunégonde are reunited, sadder but no wiser in the worst of all possible worlds, I was more confused than enraged. Strip away the flash and filigree, and nothing is left but the literary equivalent of a talkback radio host simultaneously having a prurient orgasm and a stroke over the scary immigrants and dirty sex.
Illiberal and even downright noxious political and social opinions aren’t necessarily fatal in a novelist, as Wolfe’s beloved Balzac – a highly conservative royalist with Karl Marx among his fans – showed. But it’s sad to see a man who once pronounced that the American novel is “dying of anorexia” dishing up a stodgy pudding of empty calories and high-fructose corn syrup. The spicy satirising of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) has degenerated into rancid Miami tripe.
BACK TO BLOOD, by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape, $37.99).
Craig Ranapia writes the culture blog Muse at Public Address.