Tom Wolfe writes with his finger on the pulse of America. Readers need no introduction to this man who has chronicled the nation, from the race to the moon all the way into the 21st century. His books are like the movies of Cecil B. DeMille, flamboyant and epic in their characters and sweep. BACK TO BLOOD, his latest novel, finds him examining Miami, Florida, where the denizens of the city struggle to co-exist in a community deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines. As Wolfe observes, Miami is a city where “everybody hates everybody.” On the pages of this book, Miami is a bubbling cauldron of diverse ethnic cultures seeking to co-exist without surrendering their individual cultures; it is a difficult, if not impossible, task.
"With BACK TO BLOOD, [Wolfe] has once again captured that certain spirit that mixes compelling characters, unique ethnicity and a modicum of craziness.... Welcome back, Tom! Thanks for another opportunity to appreciate the zaniness of America."
BACK TO BLOOD opens with officer Nestor Camacho of the Miami Marine Patrol racing his patrol boat through the waves of Biscayne Bay. Through Wolfe’s description, readers feel the force of the boat as it slams from wave to wave. Its movement is punctuated by a “SMACK,” capitalized for full effect. The reader seems to move up and down in the water as the patrol boat travels through the Bay. Officer Camacho, a Cuban-American and the novel’s central character, will climb the mast of a sailboat to rescue a Cuban refugee, but what he believes is an act of heroism will later create great difficulty for him. His own Cuban community, rather than taking pride in Camacho’s bravery, is angered because the refugee will be returned to Cuba. Transferred from the water patrol, Camacho soon finds himself in more difficulty. He is accused of the use of excessive force in making an arrest. Wolfe uses the Cuban officer’s escapades to highlight one of the novel’s themes: the tension in Miami between blacks and Cubans.
Wolfe’s greatest skill as a writer comes from his ability to weave characters together in a magnificent quilt; they are at both disparate and connected. For example, Nestor’s girlfriend is Magdalene Otero. Their relationship is complicated by Magdalena’s romantic involvement with her employer, Dr. Norman Lewis, whose specialty is treating pornographic addiction. Unfortunately, the good doctor suffers from his own addiction to sex and pornography. He prepares for his national interview with “60 Minutes”by importuning Magdalene into a sexual adventure. It’s classic Tom Wolfe --- taking full opportunity to satirize America’s hypocrisy.
Any novel about Florida must have a complete roster of characters representing the gamut of real-life Floridians. They are all present and accounted for here, and most readers with even limited knowledge of Florida could make educated guesses of the roster before turning to page one. BACK TO BLOOD introduces readers to a Cuban mayor, a black police chief, and the editor of the Miami Herald, Edward T. Topping IV. Just writing out his name makes no further ethnic description necessary. In addition, Nestor works on an art forgery case with John Smith, a Yale-educated Herald reporter working to expose a Russian entrepreneur, Sergei Korolyov, who has donated 70 million dollars of forged paintings to the Miami Art Museum.
Tom Wolfe’s BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, published in 1987, was and remains one of my all-time favorite reads.I call it a “stranded on an island” book: were I to find myself so situated, BONFIRE would be one of the books I would want with me. However, I have found Wolfe’s body of work since that superb novel to be disappointing. With BACK TO BLOOD, he has once again captured that certain spirit that mixes compelling characters, unique ethnicity and a modicum of craziness. It’s a medley that is not only Miami, but the U.S. as well. Welcome back, Tom! Thanks for another opportunity to appreciate the zaniness of America.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on October 26, 2012
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