When was the last time you heard an 81-year-old describe someone as “white boy wasted?” Only the master of observational journalism Tom Wolfe would ever be able to work this phrase into the right context. His reputation precedes him; however, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t work hard to continue being relevant. In fact, he is more relevant than the reader realizes in his new novel, “Back to Blood.” Set in Miami, it has the effect of his journalistic pieces, impeccably researched to the point that the reader snickers at the imagined sight of Wolfe in his white suit following around his subjects.
He’s aware of new Pitbull songs and the role of red Solo cups at parties and uses this pop culture knowledge to write a complete experience rather than a story. A steady stream of thoughts doesn’t flow in proper grammar in our minds, and Wolfe knows that. As one of the few writers who can get away with using exclamation points, extreme use of italics and syllabic depictions of accents (“Mee-AH-mee,” as the novel’s city setting), Wolfe has broken boundaries of writing, leaving the reader wanting more even after 700 pages.
Wolfe uses the trendy narrative style of intersecting stories but does so more successfully than many recent attempts by his peers. Somehow art forgery, porn addiction and yacht orgies all fold into each other in Miami, and Wolfe’s research combined with his stylistic narration creates the funny-because-it’s-true reactions in the reader. Never before have teenaged bimbos been described as “starved to near perfection,” or an erection described sarcastically as the “gorged cock of Youth rampant.”
These descriptions litter the frat-like party scenes of the novel, but are juxtaposed with depictions of high society scenes as well. Even though porn addiction Doctor Norman Lewis drags his nurse and girlfriend Magdalena to the most exclusive restaurant in town where she begins to thirst for the attention of socialites, he also takes her to a Columbus Day regatta where porn projected onto the sails of a boat make the viewer wonder if Norman is there for research or for personal desires.
In these same waters Officer Nestor Comacho begins his formation into a “one-man race riot” when he prevents a Cuban illegal immigrant from reaching US soil. His story is perhaps the most frustrating, yet intriguing.
Nestor first gets abandoned by his own parents who criticize him for rejecting his Cuban community, then by his girlfriend and even by the mayor. The saga is a devastating one, yet one that the reader can’t quite decide to sympathize with or or condemn. Stuck between americanos and Cubans, Nestor’s quick temper, thirst for friendship and deflated macho-ego both make him a victim and redeem him.
Whether a white Yalie journalist John Smith, or a light-skinned Haitian Ghislaine, whose father tells her and her brother to claim French heritage rather than a Creole one, almost everyone in the novel battles what their race means to them versus the external world, even if unconsciously so.
Life’s complex but not fatalistic in Miami, from the lowest of the Cuban immigrants whose greatest pride is the decal on the side of their van to the highest of the Russian millionaires who can spend $17 million in less than 15 minutes at Miami Art Basel. Wolfe explores intrinsic desire among everyone in the novel, each feeling like a “random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.” There is always that desire to be seen and known, and Wolfe points out that human tendency by creating an overarching vision in “Back to Blood” of the isolation felt despite mirrored experiences.