Grown-Up Stories: Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood” Not Worth It!

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Miami of Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood is on the verge of total conflagration: the Cubans have taken over the city! They could attack the blacks at any moment! The Haitians aren’t safe! The Russian “oligarchs” are scheming! The “Anglos” have it coming! “You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed,” says one character in what may as well be a description of this whole novel. “And that’s where mankind is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!”

This is Wolfe’s big point: that we are on the verge of animalistic anarchy (because of all the simmering racial fury!). The plot of the novel is not really worth spending much time on, since there are no real characters for us to follow and no real points of dramatic tension. Basically, a Cuban police officer named Nestor Camacho (macho!) sets off a racial firestorm by accidentally causing the deportation of a Cuban immigrant… and then a few hundred pages later, when that plotline has inconveniently run out of steam, he sets off yet another racial firestorm when he’s caught on video shouting slurs at a black drug dealer he has beaten up.

Sometimes we follow his former girlfriend Magdalena, who starts dating the porn-addiction psychologist she works for; really this just ends up giving Wolfe an excuse to go off about some of his pet peeves: the evils of modern art, the superficiality of reality TV, the disgusting decadence of extreme wealth—how original. It also gives the reader far too many pages of absurdly reproduced Russian accents (“Vot ees dees zing?”), since apparently all the rich people in Miami are those creepy Russian oligarchs (except, for good measure, one Jew).

Oh, and there’s some stuff about the Miami Herald, because controversial news stories are an efficient way to stir racial tensions and allow Wolfe to throw in yet another demographic: WASPy editors and writers (e.g. Edward T. Topping V), who are in Wolfe’s telling all weenies—they’re afraid of the seething, rising, inevitable anarchy about to consume them!

To marshal all this material into shape, Wolfe employs what may well be the most laughably worked-up narration I have ever read. Every description is superlative, always trying to top itself. Exclamation points and italic emphases pop up everywhere! Sometimes Wolfe seems to lose control entirely: “Perfect little cupcakes! He could just see the lubricants and spirochetes oozing into the crotches of their short short-shorts! Short short short-shorts! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex!” And: “He’s so horribly vile! vile! vile! vile!” Even just: “Guilt! Guilt! Guilt! Guilt!”

It’s hard to know exactly what prompts these sorts of eruptions, since they occur so frequently and often without apparent dramatic purpose, though physical description, actually just male physical description, does seem to be a fairly reliable cause. We might call this Wolfe’s muscle fetish, and it is ridiculous: there is a “bodybuilder build bulging,” “bulging with muscles here there everywhere . . . bulging! . . . so grotesque!”; and also, “five feet and seven inches’ worth of big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads—dense!” and much more.

A few pages—maybe even a few chapters—of steroidal exaggeration and boiling tensions might be entertaining on their own, but this novel is 700 pages (!); and it is totally devoid of good writing or engaging plot or real character. It is finally just really, really dull. At no point while reading it did I feel an urge to turn the page to find out what happens next. At no point did I really empathize with a character. Not even once! The only things I know about Nestor Camacho are the things that Tom Wolfe has expressly told me about him: that he is incredibly muscular and a Cuban police officer, that he grew up in the Hialeah neighborhood of Miami, that he owns a Camaro, etc. Nestor has only the thoughts and feelings he must have for Wolfe to do what he wants with him: he seems to exist only as a catalyst for Wolfe to stir up the boiling racial tensions—to bring us all back to blood!

Actually, it’s not really clear why Wolfe has written a novel at all, since he is so uninterested in what is really novelistic—character and story. Wolfe began his career as an aggressively unorthodox journalist, and even now as a novelist his interest seems to be exclusively in social comment, at the expense of pretty much everything else. His grand point starves noticing and detail, starves character—indeed, it starves fiction itself, because it twists everything in the novel into evidence for its preposterous claim.

Perhaps Wolfe switched to fiction because he realized reality could provide no grounding for his absurd thesis, and perhaps he uses exaggeration to cover for an inability to give his writing true life… but that’s admittedly just speculation. Whatever the reasons, the result is not good: the big point—we’re all heading back to blood!—is repeated again and again and again, uselessly, until the exclamation point army is exhausted and this insufferable novel is finally over.

Back to Blood is published by Little, Brown and is listed at $30.

Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/The Daily Gazette.

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