What, you may wonder, is Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, Back to Blood – his first, you’ll remember, since the critically reviled I Am Charlotte Simmons – actually about? Well, having got from one side to the other, I can say that the engine of the plot is a donation of $70m worth of art to a new Miami gallery by a Russian oligarch called Sergei Korolyov. A young journalist called John Smith stumbles across a rumour that the donated art is all forged – but if it is forged, then Smith’s boss on the Miami Herald Edward T Topping IV, and all of his high-falutin’ cronies have all been made fools of and that just can’t be. Curiously, though, even though this is the engine of the plot and these are the people who keep that engine turning over, this is also the background of the book.
The two main characters in Back to Blood are a young Cuban police officer called Nestor Camacho and his ex-girlfriend Magdalena. Nestor is the kind of guy who attracts trouble. At the beginning of the novel, he rescues a fellow Cuban – I say ‘fellow’ Cuban, Nestor has been born in the States to a family that travelled over from Cuba earlier in the century in a boat that almost ended them – who has arrived illegally in Miami and climbed to the very top of a party schooner’s mast. Wolfe fills us in on a bit of Miami law lore: if an illegal Cuban places one foot on American soil, they can stay; if they only get as far as the water, or as in this case the mast of a nearby boat, they are sent home. Despite rescuing the bewildered Cuban, in a feat of derring-do that has young Nestor swinging hand over hand along a rope from on high with his legs clamped around a subdued illegal for all the world to see, he is plunged into a crisis – with the US press on the one hand singing his praises and the Cuban equivalent deriding him (which leads to all manner of trouble with his family). Meanwhile, Magdalena is busy leaving Nestor and shacking up with her boss, a relatively high profile ‘schlocktor’, Dr Norman Lewis – a psychiatrist who is working with the extremely wealthy to cure them of their addiction (not that it’s addiction, Dr Norman tells us repeatedly) to pornography. Magdalena and Norman gift us with a glimpse into the world of the rich and famous, taking in a gallery opening here, a regatta there, the odd outdoor orgy, the odder sexual art show there. Eventually Magdalena becomes involved with Sergei and Nestor joins forces with John Smith and, all roads leading to Rome, the engine of the novel gradually sputters to life.
But again a great deal of this feels like background. What Back to Blood actually is is a platform for Tom Wolfe to be Tom Wolfe. If you’re idea of fun is an eighty year old man wandering around a club slightly befuddled by how bloody noisy a club can be, whilst going all goggle-eyed over all of the scantily-clad young beauties, then Back to Blood is very much the book for you. Whether he’s at the regatta (‘TEXTS thung TEXTS thung BEAT thung HUMP thung THRUST thung BEAT thung DANCING thung AGAIN thung the DECK thung DECK thung INFLAMED thung LUST thung LUST WHOOP’), the strip club (‘BEAT thung BEAT thung SHIMMY thung THRUST IT thung’) or, indeed, just waking up (‘a barely aububblyblumbling mumble mumble mumble and a single mumble wonk wonk wonk wonk of laughter and more mumblemumblemumblemumble’), frequently his writing gets in the way of what he’s saying. We get it, Tom, you’ll find yourself saying. A car can’t just take a corner, it has to take it s l o w l y. Or slooooooooooooooooooooooooowly. A phrase can’t just be stretched out – it has to be sttttrrrreeeetttcchheed out. If a pretty girl goes by, we find ourselves snagged for paragraphs at a time as Wolfe howls about the LEGS, the LEGS, the LEGS. Yes, Tom, we know – girls have legs. Move on. But when he does move on, it’s to say the same thing twelve or thirteen times, as if repetition alone will hammer home just how important what we are looking at is. From the boat that Nestor is on at the beginning of the novel (whose prow SMACK punctuates SMACK the SMACK opening SMACK chapter, SMACK as SMACK it SMACKs the SMACK waves) through frankly bizarre punctuation (Wolfe is fond of :::::::::::::::::::: as a device that seems to indicate we are, for the moment, within the VERY HEAD OF A CHARACTER AS THAT CHARACTER IS THINKING SOMETHING) to the need to run everything that foreign characters say to us twice just so we know what what they saying sounds like (vot vot zay are zaying zounds like), much of Back to Blood is frankly bizarre.
But even this hyperbolic cartoon writing would be forgivable if the engine of the plot wasn’t inherently flawed. All of this is driven by the fact that a Russian oligarch donated art for free. John Smith’s boss and Nestor Camacho both admit that they are not sure donating forged art is a crime. Even though we learn at the end of the book, after 700 or so pages of the above, that Korolyov used the donation to sell other forged works of art abroad, it’s all a bit meh, which suggests that the cartoon of Miami life is what the book is about rather than the narrative. But if you look at Back to Blood as a slice of life novel, a surgical dissection of Miami refracted through the highest and the lowest, in the vein of Dickens or (or – or – or) The Wire (albeit shot through the prism of Tom Wolfe being Tom Wolfe), it fails because it’s more peculiar than it is compelling.
If you look back over Wolfe’s last two arguably successful novels, Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, all of the cartoon excesses are present but they are dialled back and presented within a compelling narrative. What Back to Blood demonstrates, as I Am Charlotte Simmons did before it, is that Wolfe is losing his powers of clarity. It may be he’s still having fun – but is reading Tom Wolfe as enjoyable as it used to be? Goodness me no. Kurt Vonnegut said Wolfe was ‘a genius who would do anything to get attention.’ Back to Blood is certainly a book bending over backwards to draw attention to itself but is it a work of genius? Not by a long chalk.
Any Cop?: If you’ve got to this point in the review and you think Back to Blood still sounds alright, then please read with our blessing. The rest of you be grateful. We read it now you don’t have to.