Tom Wolfe's 'Back to Blood': a bilious mess
Tom Wolfe was one of the showiest voices of his generation, the New Journalists' point man, the writer who got the most attention -- well, insisted upon it -- and for a while, lived up to his self-promotion with such great stuff as "The Right Stuff" and "From Bauhaus to Our House."
That generation, though, was 40 years ago. Mr. Wolfe's manic, cockeyed stream-of-consciousness style, with its giggly exaggerations popping out in italics or CAPITAL LETTERS including lots of sound effects like "aahhhuhwaaaAHHHH" slammed into page-long sentences is not what writers are giving readers anymore. It just ain't cool.
Little, Brown ($30).
In fact, one could point out to Mr. Wolfe, "You're not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying. You may be great. You may be iconic ... but you're not cutting-edge."
I quote the one and the same Tom Wolfe who, without irony, wrote that apt description of himself in his long anticipated new novel, "Back to Blood," the hoped-for comeback after his overstuffed turkey, "I Am Charlotte Simmons," roasted his old publisher and sent Tom and his ice-cream suit over to Little, Brown, aka the James Patterson Publishing Empire. (I apologize for the long sentence, but I've been infected after 704 pages of unedited Wolfean excess.)
Mr. Wolfe's novels -- "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "A Man in Full" and "Simmons" -- are his brand of journalism converted into fiction, although it's been argued that there was often a tinge of fiction in his "New" reportage. The novels' subjects are the cultures of New York, Atlanta and the college scene, respectively.
He now focuses his gaze on Miami, called the capital of Latin America, a tropical churn of nationalities -- Cuban, Caribbean, South American -- streaming through the traditional African-American and white communities with a sprinkling of Russian emigres. It's a microcosm of changing America, high-octane fuel for an ambitious novelist who wants to cook up a mulligatawny stew that will have readers' brows sweating from its heat and spice.
All the ingredients are arranged before Chef Wolfe in the literary kitchen and we eagerly await the savory concoction. Despite the noise and glitter of rattling pots and pans, the dish is nothing but frothy egg whites piled atop a store-bought pie crust, and a stale one at that.
The story is routine and predictable. It opens with an embarrassingly racist prologue that wants us to blush at the words mons veneris or another favorite, mons pubis -- "Oh, ineffable dirty girls!" -- because the prudish Mr. Wolfe can't bring himself to use the common terms. Plus he is shocked, shocked! that women in strip clubs are NAKED!
As small signs that the 81-year-old cognescenti of culture is losing his hipness, Mr. Wolfe thinks TAPE RECORDERS are still in use and that the exercise routine, Spinning, is a "new fad." He uses a weird punctuation -- two rows of six periods one atop the other.
"Back to Blood" charts the rocky course of Cuban-American Nestor Camacho, muscled-up, head-shaved Miami cop who offends his own people, the black community and the Russian colony while exposing the Miami art scene as a fraud for wealthy philistines, or "maggots" as Mr. Wolfe calls them. A self-educated "expert" on contemporary art, Mr. Wolfe postures about the current scene as all about "No-hands or De-skilled" techniques and almost fools us into believing he's on top of things. A reality check proves our "expert" is five years -- at least -- out of date.
He throws an elbow at the Haitians as well although the lone virgin in the book, a Haitian-American college student with nobility and impeccable manners -- in other words, a cliche -- may prove to be Nestor's salvation.
The burly cop is abetted by the whitest of all gringos, John Smith, cub reporter for the Miami Herald, now reduced to a shill for Miami's establishment and edited by the WASP coward, Edward Topping IV. These Ivy League palefaces are heading for minority status in Miami ("Mee-ah-mee," in Mr. Wolfe's clumsy Spanish-accent impression), facing humiliation by the hot-blooded Latin temperament that's drowning them.
Mr. Wolfe sets tribe against tribe because these days, "it's back to blood!" in America. The melting pot myth is just that -- a myth to be exposed by the iconic Tom Wolfe, even though it was exposed years ago. "If you want to understand Miami," says the Cuban-American mayor, "you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody."
It seems that Mr. Wolfe hates everybody as well, and that's a sad conclusion to draw from this undisciplined mess of a novel in which no one escapes the withering snobbery and disdain of this cranky old man.
First Published October 21, 2012 12:00 am