Tom Wolfe's 'Back to Blood': preposterous, contrived, yet wildly entertaining(Read article summary)
Tom Wolfe's 'Back to Blood' tries to do for Miami what his previous novels did for New York and Atlanta, but critics say he falls short.
After an 8-year hiatus, Tom Wolfe is back in Wolfian style, taking on another city (Miami) with a sweeping social portrait painted through a cast of larger-than-life characters tackling familiar Wolfian themes: race, class, social striving, vanity, and prejudice.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs really a novel about immigration,‚ÄĚ Wolfe tells the UK‚Äôs Telegraph about his new novel, ‚ÄúBack to Blood.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúMiami is a melting pot in which none of the stones melt. They rattle around. A lot of Russians are there now, Haitians, Nicaraguans. Miami is plan B for everyone in Latin America at this point. And everybody hates everybody, as my guide put it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBack to Blood,‚ÄĚ Wolfe‚Äôs first novel after 8 years, tries to do for Miami what ‚ÄúBonfire of the Vanities‚ÄĚ did for New York, and ‚ÄúA Man in Full‚ÄĚ did for Atlanta, as The New York Times tells it.
And try Wolfe did. The 81-year-old journalist-turned-novelist carried out years of exhaustive first-hand research ‚Äď including dropping in at a strip club, participating in an orgiastic yachting regatta, and visiting a slew of black crack slums ‚Äď before penning this 3-pound, 722-page Goliath that aspires to be a sweeping social novel that tries to tell the story of Miami.
But by most accounts, he fell far short.
The New York Times calls ‚ÄúBack to Blood‚ÄĚ ‚Äúa soapy, gripping and sometimes glib novel that‚Äôs filled with heaps of contrivance and cartoonish antics.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThis is the sort of material Wolfe used to eat for breakfast, back in his journalism days,‚ÄĚ writes the LA Times, adding, ‚ÄúThe plots he creates feel contrived in comparison to those he has discovered in the world.‚ÄĚ
The New Yorker‚Äôs James Wood disparaged ‚ÄúBack to Blood‚Äôs‚ÄĚ ‚Äúyards of flapping exaggeration.‚ÄĚ
You see, Wolfe, a National Book Award winner and bestselling writer, was a pioneer of ‚ÄúNew Journalism,‚ÄĚ the now widely used technique of applying techniques of fiction (descriptive language, dialogue, rich scene setting) to nonfiction. And that‚Äôs why his best works remain his early nonfiction, ‚ÄúThe Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúRadical Chic.‚ÄĚ
But the widely accepted understanding of Wolfe is that his journalistic acumen doesn‚Äôt transfer to his novels.
‚ÄúHe is a giant among nonfiction writers, but the rap on him as a novelist is that he thinks wide and not deep,‚ÄĚ writes The Washington Post.
Still, it‚Äôs difficult to argue ‚ÄúBack to Blood‚ÄĚ fails to entertain. Wolfe tackles the larger-than-life city of Miami through a colorful cast of characters including a Cuban-American policeman in too-tight uniform, a WASP newspaper editor, a swaggering Russian oligarch (read: mobster), and a randy psychiatrist who treats pornography addicts.
Though the characters suffer from sarcastic generalizations, over-stereotyping, and noxious personalities, Wolfe nonetheless ‚Äúdepicts a dog-eat-dog world in which people behave like animals, scratching and clawing their way up the greasy social pole,‚ÄĚ writes the NYT. ‚ÄúAs he‚Äôs done in the past, Mr. Wolfe excavates the world of the superrich with cackling glee, reduces politicians to caricatures of self-interest and mocks or eviscerates practically everyone else.‚ÄĚ
Preposterous, overwrought, contrived, wildly ambitious, and outrageously entertaining. It is, in other words, classic Wolfian fare.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.