'Back to Blood' A Flat Portrayal of Urban Idiosyncracies

'Back to Blood' by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown and Company)

Mindy Yi

'Back to Blood' by Tom Wolfe is available in stores now.

The city of Miami is racist, sex-obsessed, and confused in Tom Wolfe’s new novel “Back to Blood.” Wolfe, author of many bestsellers including “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” is known for his daring narrative style. In “Back to Blood,” Wolfe tries to represent modern American life and the difficulty of maintaining distinct cultures in a rapidly homogenizing city. Through references to pop songs, iPhones, Spanish, and modern media, Wolfe tries to delve into contemporary Miami life. He ends up, however, betraying his age and separation from pop culture in awkward prose and word choices that are distracting from the central story.

Struggles of racism and individuality play out in Miami’s scorching hot scenery, shifting between boats, police headquarters, and psychiatric offices. The characters are as varied and diverse as the scenery, but after a few tangential stories, Wolfe focuses the novel on Nestor Camacho, a Cuban-American police officer. Nestor starts the trajectory of the story when he follows orders to retrieve an illegal Cuban immigrant from the top of a ship’s mast. “How could you do that to a man of your own blood?” his father asks him angrily, forcing Nestor to think about his cultural identity as it conflicts with a high-demand job.

The conflict of a person’s blood and his desire to be American is, as Wolfe represents it, a generational war as much as it is an internal battle. Some parents in “Back to Blood” forbid their children to speak in their native languages for fear of discrimination, while others essentially disown their children when they become too American. Unfortunately for these compelling depictions, Wolfe spends only snatches of time with each character and instead devotes more of the ample page count to names of stores, sex terms, odd punctuation, and distracting capitalization. The distracting and awkward constructions weigh down the story. The time Wolfe devotes to the extra words takes away time he could be using to develop the characters more fully.

Presumably, Wolfe’s frequent use of brand-name words and electronic products are meant to tie the narration to a modern perspective, but those sentences come off sounding unnatural. Whereas today’s young generation is used to talking about texting, YouTube, and Facebook, Wolfe is clearly not. Few young people would refer to the “glass face of the iPhone” as Wolfe does, or “this YouTube introduction of Nestor Camacho to the world!” Wolfe is not used to the Spanish words that pepper the story either, and he often—perhaps offensively—mentions that his two Cuban characters, Nestor and Magdalena, do not have a grasp on the English language and culture. “She had no idea what an epigraph was,” Wolfe writes about Magdalena. “She had a vague notion of Anna Karenina…somebody in a book?”

“Back to Blood” is not a fluid read, because the perspective descends erratically into the minds of different characters. Wolfe chooses to mark each shift from third person omniscient to first person with six consecutive colons. These interruptions appear in the middle of a paragraph, such as “::::::I’m...pumped!::::::” interjected into the middle of a narration about Nestor. It becomes impossible to get to the bottom of the page without being distracted.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the plot jumps physical locations as often as it shifts perspectives. From Cuban neighborhoods and Russian art galleries, to a newsroom populated with Ivy League-bred WASPs and a frightening island of elite nymphomaniacs, Miami appears to be a city in defiance of the melting pot metaphor so often applied to cities in America. At one point, Nestor and his journalist friend John Smith drive out of Miami. Smith is surprised by the geographical change: “We’ve just entered a strange land…called America!” he exclaims. “We’re not in Miami anymore. Can you feel it?”

In the short scene that follows, the removal from the heart of Miami is certainly felt by the readers as Wolfe’s lexical choices take the reader away from the noise of the city. Scenes inside strip clubs and on the streets of Miami are invaded by sound words and uncomfortable punctuation, but once the narration moves to locations farther away from Miami, the writing takes on a far more straightforward quality. Such scenes are a relief from the stress of reading Wolfe’s Miami prose. He keeps the readers alert with “THUMPS” and “SMACKS” and “uhhh uhhh uhhh” sound effects, but distracts from what would otherwise be an interesting account of assimilation and immigrant experience in a modern American city.

Wolfe is well known for depicting sounds in his novels, which creates an atmosphere for his characters that is unique. He is liberal with punctuation, longer words, and interruptions in the middle of prose, but in “Back to Blood,” his writing style does not add to the plot or the development of his characters. Wolfe’s transcriptions of thought processes and phonetic speech affectations may have positively enhanced his other novels, but something falls flat in his most recent one. The detached way he writes about modern technology, in combination with a finicky perspective that jumps from character to character, may leave the book’s readers feeling unfulfilled. If more of the novel had taken place outside of Miami, where Wolfe’s writing is often fluid and captivating, the essence of the story may have better emerged. Wolfe’s depiction of Miami’s unique resistance to the “melting pot” phenomenon is interesting, but unfortunately, it remains too hard to sift through everything on the periphery for that intent to make much of a difference by the end of the novel.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall xan be reached at virginiarosemarshall@college.harvard.edu.

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