“Tom Wolfe has still got it. . . He presents the American Dream as it is today. And he does it very, very well.”
“You’re not cutting edge if your whole generation is dead or dying.”
So says one of the characters in the 81-year-old Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood.
Before opening this book I felt worried. What if the octogenarian Mr. Wolfe, an author who’s always been so widely admired for going past cutting edge, leaving it in the dust, entering bleeding edge territory, had suddenly, finally, irrevocably clotted? What if Tom Wolfe, a writer renowned for providing his readers with utterly unique stylistic experiences—for reading Mr. Wolfe has always been like seeing the world through kaleidoscopic spectacles—had suddenly become blinkered? What if Mr. Wolfe had lost his relevance?
A Tom Wolfe novel is always a prodigious effort. They are always big. Mr. Wolfe likes supersizing. His specialty is the vast, sweeping novel that reflects the vast, sweeping America he holds up his (slightly warped) mirror to.
And Back to Blood, his fourth novel, is no different. Weighing in at a hefty 720 pages, the book is certainly packed. But is it any good? And how has Mr. Wolfe fared when writing about an America in the midst of a social and cultural revolution that might, in time, come to be seen as supersized as well? Is the master of style still current? Shouldn’t the real reflection of this new America come in at a maximum of 140 tweeted characters, each character weighted by the echoes of 311 million people—all clamoring to be heard?
Well, frankly, no. First, though this is a big, ambitious novel, it never descends into stodginess. Second, Tom Wolfe has still got it. The Wolfean “right stuff.” He’s still able to amaze, to entertain, and to present the world using so many disparate voices that he can twist the reader’s blood. One hundred and forty characters? Pshaw!
And is Back to Blood any good? Well, yes. It is. And though it never reaches the dizzying heights of The Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, it towers over the disappointing I Am Charlotte Simmons—as well as most fiction I’ve read this year. And though there are some passages that somehow don’t ring true, the overall narrative and Mr. Wolfe’s overarching style carry us along.
The focus of Back to Blood is the cultural melting pot of Miami. Arguably the first modern American city: a place where the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant has become a “member of a dying genus.” This is “Immigration City” where “the Americanos,” “the blacks . . . the Haitians . . . the Nicas, as everybody called Nicaraguans” are massively outnumbered by those of Hispanic origin. It is a place where racial and socioeconomic tensions simmer under the surface. A place where, although diversity and political correctness are implied, misunderstandings and miscommunications are commonplace.
In the opening chapter, the editor of the Miami newspaper, one Ed Edward T. Topping IV becomes embroiled in a confrontation over a parking space at the latest restaurant of choice. And his wife loses her cool, screaming: “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!”
To which, the co-respondent’s response is: “No . . . we een Mee-ah-mee (Miami) now!”
This is not the America presented to the greater, outside world. Indeed, Mr. Wolfe’s Miami is almost a city state. Later in the book, two characters cross the “border” and realize: “We’ve just entered a strange land . . . called America! We’re not in Miami anymore. Can’t you feel it?”
Miami feels different. It talks differently, too. The language can be roughly defined as English, because many of the immigrants are second generation. They can understand Spanish but not speak it. “Despite all the talk about bilingualism, practically everybody spoke English. There were more Spanish-language television and radio stations than English, but the best shows were in English. The best movies, blogs (and online porn), and video games, the hottest music, the latest thing in iPhones, BlackBerries, Driods, keyboards . . .”
When a character attempts to speak “proper” American English, it sparks an uncomfortable reaction: “On the rare occasion he heard ‘he doesn’t,’ it touched off a visceral reaction that made him sense ‘alien’ or ‘affected,’ even though he knew, if he thought about it, that ‘he doesn’t’ was plain correct grammar.” He’d have preferred to hear “he don’t.”
Tom Wolfe recognizes that Miami does have a reputation as something of a retirement village—or rather a place of assisted living areas for active adults—Mr. Wolfe knows that the city doesn’t sound like this dead and dying generation anymore. No, he depicts them as “worms, little, short, soft, deathly pale worms,” or as creakingly decrepit: “the way the deep lines beside their noses descended into their wattles, their jowls, and that overture to old age, a pair of harp-string-size tendons on either side of the Adam’s apple.” But he also recognizes that modern Miami speaks in a wholly different language, one informed by the vitality of youth.
Here, Mr. Wolfe presents us with “the first generation to have no last names.” Because: “Using a last name was considered pompous . . . or else too much of a tip-off as to your background . . . ethnic, racial, sometimes social.” The youth try to navigate around aspects of identity in myriad ways in Back to Blood, whether it is disguising their roots and endeavoring to hide “bad blood” or to escape them, get the hell out of Dodge (or Hialeah), and forge their identities anew. And while the older generation like “me Edward T. Topping IV” and “I, Camillo Camacho” seem to know their place in the world, the younger characters don’t even know how to define themselves.
This is Nestor Camacho, Camillo’s son:
“Latino—there was something off about that word, too. It existed only in the United States. Also ‘Hispanic.’ Who the hell called people Hispanics? Why? But the whole thing began to make his head hurt—”
And so the young try to define themselves in new ways. By making themselves look bigger or sexier. In forcing people to see them. Because Miami’s young people believe they should be seen and heard.
In the novel, there are numerous examples of the younger characters trying to become visible. Once Nestor Camacho has “disgraced” his family, his father “not only considers him a non person, he acts as if he is no longer a corporeal presence. He acts like he literally can’t see him.”
And Magdalena, his former partner, describes her experience at a glitzy art party like this: “Women don’t exist when men like these meet . . . unless they happen to be stars of some kind themselves . . . We’re just here. . . . We just fill up space.”
The key, of course, is to shout loudest in a city full of noise. And it is in describing the great clamor of Miami that Mr. Wolfe’s famous style—so full of diversions and digressions, linguistic games, eccentric punctuation, mimickry, and onomatopoeia—comes into play. For example:
“The Annihilator’s horn and brake lights screeeeeeeaming red—shrieeeeeking rubber—the oncoming vehicle veeeeeering to keep from hitting the Annihilator head-on—blurrring white surmounted by tiny blurrring blaaaack streeeeaks to Ed’s right from in front of the Annihilator—hurtled into the miracle parking spot—laaaaaying down rubber as it braked to a stop . . .”
Or Dr. Norman Lewis’ laugh: “Hock hock hock hock.” Or the music in the strip club: “BEAT thung thung BEAT.”
This is Miami writ large. But then we’ve already indicated that Mr. Wolfe loves big. Many of his male characters are described as being “a real man” or “a real bull.” They are Supermen, chest-puffers: “His chest bulged out against a white shirt . . .” And “Everything about him is big, his shoulders, the trapezius muscles that go from the neck to the shoulders, his upper arms.” The police chief has a neck “as thick as a tree” and shoulders “this wide.” They are men who have “the will to be daring and dominate.” Men who can perform an “amazing feat of strength.” In Tom Wolfe’s Miami, it’s all about showing him “who’s boss around here. You’ve shown him you’re the alpha male, not him.”
Just like in his previous novels, Wolfe explores the seven deadly sins of masculinity: honor, size, strength, respect, valor, chivalry and pride. But still, these are smaller men than the “masters of the universe” as presented in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The men here are “masters of disaster” or “masters of realities,” and here, those “paragons of masculinity” are often painted as faintly ridiculous figures.
In Back to Blood Mr. Wolfe explores the art world, pornography, reality TV, the media—particularly newspapers and what role they play in this new world—gyms, TV comedians, murder, confrontations, gangs, Russian oligarchs—all of them noisy, all of them screaming for our attention.
But what Tom Wolfe really presents us with here is a great, stomping gold rush for Identity! For Power! For a Place in the world! He presents the American Dream as it is today. And he does it very, very well—81 years old or not.