By Andrew Donaldson for the Sunday Times
His latest work is great, sprawling entertainment, but not his best, writes Andrew Donaldson
In the closing months of the 20th century, Tom Wolfe wrote that the American novel was dying – not of obsolescence but of anorexia.
“It needs food. It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts for America as she is right now. It needs novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye.”
Well, let’s not get too full of ourselves, shall we, and the less said about the current state of American cinema the better. But with Back to Blood – a novel that does for Miami what Wolfe’s fictional debut, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), did for Manhattan, and his A Man in Full (1998) did for Atlanta and the new South – we certainly get a massive serving of a fevered, ethnically diverse, racially mixed corner of the US that has not only been looked fully in the eye, but elsewhere too.
Here is a novel that has gorged itself on anatomical detail. As a journalist, Wolfe was devastatingly on the mark when he satirised “the moistened folds and glistening nodes and stiffened giblets” of the 1970s sexual revolution. But now the comic has become cartoonish.
A young cop, for example, is all “big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads”. A sexually aroused man “could feel the tumescence men live for welling up beneath his Jockey tight-whiteys! Oh, ineffable dirty girls!” A women’s “taut” breasts are “pectoral glories . how they stuck out defying gravity”.
“Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis!”. Denim hugged “declivities fore and aft, entered every crevice . climbed their montes veneris”, with “lubricants and spirochetes oozing into the crotches of their short short-shorts!”
For all that, however, Back to Blood is not as full of the “rutrutrutrutrut.” that characterised I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Wolfe’s novel about the corporatisation of student lust, but sex nevertheless drives its plot which, as plots go, is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet affair, with lashings of barbed social commentary and class warfare on the side. Miami, we learn, is a seething, roiling mass of racial tension; more than half its population consists of recent immigrants. Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Colombians, Russians and Israelis jostle with increasingly robust black Americans as “anglo” culture fades from prominence.
Wolfe has thrown a diverse group of characters and locales into the mix: an Hispanic mayor, a black police chief, an über-Wasp newspaper editor who is terrified of his wife, a Yale-educated reporter, a Russian oligarch addicted to pornography, a therapist specialising in sex addiction, violent street gangs, a snooty art world, strip clubs, and the claustrophobic exiled Little Havana community.
Our hero is a young policeman, Nestor Camacho, the son of Cuban immigrants. He has two aims in life: to regain the love of his life, Magdalena, a waitress, and to earn the respect of his colleagues. His world, however, is turned upside-down when he rescues a Cuban refugee – an act that outrages the city’s Cuban population as the refugee now faces deportation back to Havana – and when his arrest of a black crack dealer, distorted in a YouTube video clip, threatens to spark a race riot.
It’s great, sprawling entertainment – but not great Wolfe. For that, we must return to the groundbreaking journalism of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). With these and other works, Wolfe emerged as a brilliant observer of contemporary culture, insightful, witty and unerringly effective in revealing his subjects’ complexities.
With the fiction, though, his characters are too cartoonish, stereotypical. In other words, he’s not so good when he makes things up. That is especially true of Back to Blood. Here, only Nestor and Magdalena emerge as fully rounded figures.
Much of the stylistic innovation – ::::::the punctuation!!!!::::: – that Wolfe pioneered with his journalism has been retained here, but it seems dated and tired, and appears to serve little purpose other than to fill up space. Wolfe’s other trademarks, however, the drawn-out grunts – “UHHhhhnnnggghhhhhsssigned” – and the shrieking in upper case – “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!” – fare a little better, as does the alliteration – “labially, lubriciously, lubricated.”
All of which makes for a very loud novel indeed, perhaps the shoutiest book you’ll read in a long while. But that is Wolfe’s carnival barker showmanship for you. He’s been described as the literary huckster of our time, and this one’s another implausible, yet enjoyable, carousel of a novel. Buy the ticket – and tuck in.
Books brought to you in association with Exclusives.co.za