Author: Tom Wolfe, 2012.
Genre: Contemporary. Crime. Race. Politics. Art.
Other Details: Hardback. 704 pages.
As the police boat speeds across Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the scene is set for Officer Nestor Camacho’s great moment of heroism. Except that in this feverous melting pot of a city, Nestor's one act of heroism can be seen as an utter betrayal of his Cuban roots. As Nestor’s world disintegrates – his family disowns him, he can’t get a Cuban coffee without ugly stares, and his girlfriend Magdalena leaves him for her sex-addiction psychiatrist boss – his quest to right the wrongs brings him into contact with the full panorama of modern Miami. The Cuban mayor, a Yale-marinated journalist, the black police chief, a Haitian professor whose ambitions to be French are thwarted by his Creole-spouting son, the clueless baying art-buyers and an Anglo billionaire porn addict all come up for scrutiny in Tom Wolfe’s high-energy, scrupulous and hilarious reckoning with our times.. - synopsis from UK Publisher's website.
I'd be the first to admit this is a messy novel: messy yet in my opinion quite magnificent. Very much carrying the hallmarks of a classic Tom Wolfe novel, a writer who people seem to love or hate. I'm firmly on the love side of the equation and have found all his works that I have read to date memorable. Tom Wolfe has a very distinctive style, which owes a great deal to his early career as a journalist, so that the narrative feels raw and immediate as though he is an observer reporting on these people and events rather than sitting at his desk creating them.
Here, as in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe explores the complex racial tensions of Miami's urban melting pot with little regard for political correctness and combines this with a subtle yet biting satire of class, wealth, sex, celebrity and the modern art market. Wolfe is very a very confident writer, strong in his opinions especially about art. This aspect was a strong point for me given my background in art history and familiarity with his scathing non-fiction on the subject. His views haven't softened with the years.
Despite its 700 page length Back to Blood proved a fast read as I was carried along by the power of its narrative. I admire Wolfe's writing and felt this was one of his best for its energy and perception about the clash of cultures. During my teenage and young adult years I lived in Miami and even though the cityscape has changed greatly since I left it was still recognisable.
The roots of these issues were present then as well as the ever expanding gulf between the have and have nots. As one of the novel's many character observes about the immigrant siltation: "I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’ ” It was a sobering observation for the character, the current Mayor of Miami, as well as for me as a reader and former Miami resident during a time that seems in retrospect much more innocent and willing to embrace the city's increasing cultural diversity.