Book Review: Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe

Miami, the locale for Tom Wolfe’s latest blockbuster, Back to Blood, is famous for its large population of African Americans, Cubans, Haitians, and recent Russian immigrants. Wolfe’s Miami is more of a boiling pot than a melting pot.

The hero of this sprawling tale is a young Cuban-American police officer, Nestor Camacho. The inciting incident occurs when Camacho, assigned to a marine patrol boat, rescues a Cuban refugee from atop a 70-foot mast of a schooner. When Camacho reached the top of the mast, the refugee attempted to climb down a cable that connects the mast to the bow. Fearing the man would fall to his death. Camacho wrapped his legs around the man and made the agonizing climb hand-over-hand down the cable.

Camacho became a hero to the public, but a pariah to his Cuban-American community, for turning in a refugee who would be sent back to Cuba. It got worse as Officer Camacho found himself entangled in multiple adventures as the story progressed. Reassigned to a drug unit by the Police Chief, he was captured on video subduing an African-American suspect while he and a fellow officer hurled racial obscenities. His girlfriend, Magdalena Otero, dumped him and became involved with her boss, Doctor Norman Lewis, a social-climbing psychiatrist who treats rich, sex-addicted clients. His main client granted Doctor Lewis entrée to the nefarious world of art dealers and collectors, who “See it! Like it! Buy it!

Back to Blood mines many of the same themes of his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, where his targets were racial tension and the accompanying racial politics, America’s obsession with sex, money and status.

As one of the pioneers of New Journalism, Wolfe’s terrain is big societal issues. His novels are about the great issues of our times, not about individuals. From The Bonfire of the Vanities, through A Man and Full to I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolf’s muscular fiction goes after big targets. The issues are writ large, but the problem is that so are the characters. Rather than getting down to the emotional level, Wolf’s characters feel more like caricatures.

Multiple story lines and a cast of nefarious characters rumble through the 700- plus page opus. Though the pacing is slow, and Wolfe’s marathon sentences are at times a chore, he weaves multiple story lines that gallop along, sustaining the reader’s interest.

Back to Blood is a mixed bag, but Wolf’s hallmark research and ability to weave multiple story lines makes this an entertaining read.

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