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Book review: Tom Wolfe's timid 'Back to Blood' lacks insight

WHEEESCREEEECHhockhockhockhock eep.

That's the sound of Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood, ending in a whimper, not a bang.

Wolfe's new novel, his first in eight years, has many of the hallmarks of his early, groundbreaking New Journalism works like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and his epic satiric novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. Like them, Back to Blood boasts a free-associative, experimental style, scads of onomatopoeia and freestyle punctuation, a teeming cast of characters, meticulous detailing of status markers such as clothing and cars and accents, and a basis in extensive reporting.

But Wolfe's New Journalism startled and beguiled because it was fresh in both style and subject; his best novels impressed with their often ruthless take on big American subjects like racial and class tensions and Wall Street excesses. Back to Blood can be fun, but it feels back of the curve and, finally, timid.

The book is set in Miami, already a rich lode of material for such satirical writers as Carl Hiaasen. Wolfe opens and closes Back to Blood with Edward Topping IV, recently appointed editor of the Miami Herald, a henpecked snob whose journalistic standards have little to do with a story's merit and much to do with how said story might affect his social standing. The title is a phrase taken from Topping's reverie at the end of the prologue, in which he's musing (after a confrontation between his very WASP wife and a young Latina over a parking space) about the human tendency to revert, in times of stress, to tribalism — not even nation or religion, but "back to blood."

The book will delve into Miami's long-simmering racial and ethnic tensions among Anglos, Cubans, other Hispanics, African-Americans, Haitians, Russians, Jews and more, as well as the collisions among social classes and between generations.

Because Wolfe is writing satire, he has less interest in developing characters in depth than in setting them up to shoot them down. But there are a pair of sympathetic, complex (if somewhat inconsistent) characters at the heart of the novel. Nestor Camacho and Magdalena Otero, grew up together in a working-class Cuban neighborhood in Hialeah, both children of refugee families. They were each other's first love, but as Back to Blood begins, their affair fractures.

Nestor, a Miami police officer in the force's marine unit and an ardent bodybuilder, has just had a day that should have made him a hero. After a castaway in Biscayne Bay roosts atop the mast of a sailboat full of party guests, Nestor climbs a line 70 feet up, catches the man when he almost falls, clamps him between his legs and carries them both, hand over hand, down a 100-foot jib cable to safety.

It's an amazing feat. Problem is, the castaway is a Cuban refugee, the rescue aboard ship prevents him from claiming the exclusive-to-Cubans "dry foot" refugee status — and now Nestor's family and just about every other Cuban in Miami is calling him el traidor.

His day will get worse when Magdalena breaks up with him. She knows nothing about the rescue; eager to put Hialeah in her rearview mirror for good, she's already moving up into an affair with her "americano prince," Norman Lewis. He's a celebrity psychiatrist who specializes in treating porn addiction; Magdalena is his nurse.

The novel will follow Nestor and Magdalena on their contrasting trajectories — one will rise in the world and then fall, the other will do the opposite.

Wolfe shows Norman, the porn shrink, no mercy, but in the process he loses control of his beloved onomatopoeia. He renders Norman's horrible laugh thusly: "HahhhHHHockhockhock hock hock!" The first couple of times it was funny, the third time, I, uh, got it already. By the time Wolfe put 18 "hocks" in one paragraph in the middle of the book, my eyes were rolling.

Wolfe is not always as sure-footed with those status markers and cultural details as he used to be, either. For example, it's tough to believe anyone of Nestor's generation, born and raised in a big city, has, at age 25, never set foot in a Starbucks — and knows so little about them he's surprised at the price of coffee.

But much of Wolfe's satire is spot-on. There is his take on the clueless hedge-fund billionaires and Russian gangsters (sorry, the polite term is "oligarchs") who line up combatively at sales at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach like Walmart shoppers on Black Friday, avid to spend millions of dollars in minutes not on what they find beautiful but on what their "art advisers" and the dealers collude to sell them. A long scene set at the sale gives Wolfe the chance to unfurl his art-critic bona fides, as does a plot line involving the renaming of a local museum after one of those Russian oligarchs, Sergei Korolyov, donates $70 million worth of paintings.

Perhaps even more than art, Back to Blood focuses on sex. Or rather, since there's not much actual sex, it focuses on naked or nearly naked bodies, mostly female. The book is chock full (to the point of repetitiveness) of descriptions of cleavage like "flan" and women's "perfect little cupcake bottoms." (Maybe Wolfe was just hungry.) I didn't count, but I'm willing to bet the word "thong" is used several hundred times.

And yet Wolfe never goes beyond the delicious surfaces. I kept thinking okay, there are many gorgeous young women in Miami, and they often show a lot of skin, but . . . what's your point?

Maybe it's just Wolfe's puritanical streak, which shows up often in Back to Blood. In one scene set in a strip club, you can almost hear him having the fantods over how tips are delivered.

And then there is his lurid and verrrrrry long description of the party side of the Columbus Day Regatta — a rich kids' gunkhole party with dozens of yachts lashed together into one big drink-and-dance deck — which is made to sound rather like a sign of the Apocalypse. Maybe I've lived in Florida too long, but my reaction was, hey, a few naked water skiers and lots of girls dancing without their bikini tops? Sounds like just another Spring Break to me.

Aside from the regatta, though, little of Back to Blood takes place among the young. Nestor and especially Magdalena move mostly through the world of the middle-aged and privileged: exclusive restaurants, posh but sedate parties. Wolfe avoids the South Beach club scene — Miami's most iconic 21st century slice — altogether.

Much of the plot is episodic, stringing together big set pieces like the regatta and the art sale, and it has more loose ends than those untied bikinis. But there is a unifying thread: Nestor and Magdalena are, eventually, both pursuing the same man, although for very different reasons. Wolfe does tie much of the plot together neatly at the end, but it feels inconsequential. After all that bold talk about "back to blood," the satire in this novel feels instead like shooting fish in a barrel.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Back to Blood

By Tom Wolfe

Little, Brown,

720 pages, $30

Book review: Tom Wolfe's timid 'Back to Blood' lacks insight 10/20/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 20, 2012 4:31am]

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