book review

Wolfe Man in the Tropics

Appeared in the Boston Globe, October 27, 2012

Tom Wolfe’s books are the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts. You either love them or loathe them. It’s unlikely that Back to Blood, Wolfe’s immense new novel, will change anyone’s appetite.

Tom Wolfe

It’s a sprawling book with a typical Wolfe cast of characters — some boorish, some unvarnished models of pure self-absorption, and few likeable in any traditional sense. Throw in his zip-zam-and-swoosh prose, those Tourette-like punctuational tics :::::::::::::::::, his frequent exclamations (!!!!!!) and you get the idea!

So, if you’re not a Wolfe fan you won’t appreciate his insights into contemporary culture, the breathtaking gymnastics of his prose, or his note-perfect evocation of the human condition circa 2012.

This is for people who like Brussels sprouts.

Wolfe emerged in the 1960s with revolutionary journalism for Esquireand the New York Herald Tribune. An immaculate and canny reporter, his fingers gripped the nation’s cultural pulse and produced The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,  an epic of the spiritual quest of the 1960s generation. The Right Stuff,  a decade later, was a masterful mediation on heroism and the fickleness of fame, an astonishing work about bravery and grace.

As cultural chronicler, no one was spared from his eye and eventual pen. He poked fun at the pomposity of artists, ritualistic liberals, arbiters of taste, and the über hip.

He didn’t make many friends, especially within the literary establishment he often skewered. He claimed readers cast aside modern fiction because it was self-indulgent and didn’t have the vitality of great narrative nonfiction — his writing, for example. Legions of pissed-off novelists formed firing squads to write brutalizing reviews of his work.

So after criticizing American novelists for a decade, he decided it was put-up-or-shut-up time.

He published The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, in 1987. The book achieved Wolfe’s goal of annoying critics, but it also resonated with an audience both repelled and attracted by the greed-is-good world it so evocatively captured. He also saw it as a novel steeped in New York, the way Dickens wrote of London and Balzac of Paris. The city was the novel’s major character.

After Bonfire Wolfe continued to put out his doorstop social satires: A Man in Full (1998) about the South’s changing culture, set in Atlanta, and I am Charlotte Simmons, (2004) about the shifting morals of college-age kids at a fictional university that smells a lot like Duke mated with Stanford.

Back to Blood wriggles its toes in the white sand of Miami Beach and with its large cast of characters, allows Wolfe to explore (and mock) the denizens of Miami’s sex-obsessed, trendy society, as well as the significant conflicts between the not-quite-melted pot of Cubans, Dominicans, Haitians, and African Americans who live in a fragile mix in that concrete, air-conditioned jungle. He’s much more at home in this tangled world than he was in the college dorms of millennials.

The central character is a young cop named Nestor Camacho, who is ordered to rescue a Cuban exile perilously perched at the top of a mast of a refugee boat seeking asylum in the United States. For his YouTube preserved heroism, he becomes a pariah in the Cuban community, even in his own family. How dare he “rescue’’ this man, his father says, knowing that after he has been taken into custody he will be sent back to Cuba? The exile community would rather see the man die in freedom than live to return to Cuba. It gets so bad that Nestor sleeps in his car rather than face the wrath in his family’s home in Hialeah, the old Cuban enclave west of Miami.

As if banishment isn’t enough, Nestor loses his lovely girlfriend, Magdalena, first to a famous Miami Beach porn doctor (curing the wealthy of online sex addictions) and then to an unscrupulous Russian gangster behind an art forgery scandal. Magdalena abandons Nestor when he’s at his low point to pursue her new career as a social climber.

Magdalena provides Wolfe a vehicle to engage in his favorite sport — picking on the pretentions of the art world. He has already written two nonfiction books about art, but he has more bile to spare for the fashionable crowd with its “no hands” art. The trick these days, he says, is for artists to have others do their work and not sully themselves with tools of the trade.

In his extensive research, Wolfe attended the adults-only Miami Regatta, visited a few strip clubs, and moved among the stratosphere of the city’s society. The wise ones probably held their breath (and their tongues) fearing their words might end up in the mouths of self-centered characters, descendants of the social X-rays he described in Bonfire of the Vanities. That earlier novel had a more linear plot and Back to Blood ambles a bit, but both are immensely entertaining and insightful — assuming that you like Wolfe’s kind of insight.

In Camacho, Wolfe presents his most likeable and traditional character. Nestor continues his acts of heroism, but this noble behavior gets him in trouble. Doing the right thing seems to be the wrong thing in this sex-crazed city. Yet one ultimate act leads him to a beautiful woman and flirts with the sort of happy ending conspicuously absent in a Wolfe novel.

Nobody does hedonism and excess like Miami, and Wolfe has managed to wrangle all of his observations into an expansive book that despite its huge cast avoids becoming unruly.

Tom Wolfe may be an acquired taste, but if you like Brussels sprouts, Back to Blood is a full plate.