Lookout Miami, here comes Tom Wolfe.
In “Back to Blood,” the famed author dissects the Florida city with the same fervor he brought to his literary evisceration of Manhattan in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” That novel found Wolfe’s journalistic bona fides put to wondrous use, capturing a moment in Big Apple history that felt real, raw and remarkably compelling.
“Back to Blood” nails two of the three.
The sprawling novel, all 720 pages, introduces a colorful cast of characters who never connect with the reader and a series of subplots which suffer a similar fate.
Young, overmuscled Nestor Camacho uses his bulky frame to save a Cuban refugee during a colorfully staged rescue from the mast of a boat. The Cuban-American cop is a hero, but only to some. To his fellow Cubans – even within his own family – he’s a traitor for not letting the man complete his mission and reach American soil.
Right away, Wolfe lays down his cultural markers, defining both characters and social mores by our politically correct, identity charged times. People are simultaneously trying to escape their traditions while clinging to their benefits. It’s a perfect Age of Obama yarn, but the more Wolfe expands his canvas, the less interested we become.
We soon meet a curious young reporter, Nestor’s gorgeous (and vapid) girlfriend, a doctor specializing in the treatment of the porn addicted, a Russian painter with a mysterious way of paying the bills, and many more.
Wolfe doesn’t need to make a conventional, linear tale to grab us. “Bonfire” was similarly expansive, but its x-ray treatment of the Big Apple gave the story a ferocious, can’t wait to turn the page energy.
“Back to Blood” offers cynicism steeped with copious cultural details, but the novel never engages the heart as much as a firm sense of time and place.
Nestor’s plight gets worse when an ill-advised rant becomes a viral video sensation, but it’s hard to fully embrace him as “Blood’s” essentially noble hero. He’s young and headstrong, but his romantic impulses feel like a 13-year-old’s arrested by the sudden rush of hormones. Nestor never comes alive, even if his exploits are often larger than life. The women in his life are poorly defined, at first deified and later painted in bland, unattractive hues.
“Blood’s” story is so diverse that when it finally takes shape in its waning pages it feels obligatory, not organic. The same can be said for Wolfe’s typographical choices, meant to separate thoughts from actions and add panache to the storytelling. They ended up simply annoying the reader.
To his credit, the 80-something author dabbles in up to the minute minutiae without sounding detached. “Blood’s” subplots hit reality television, YouTube ubiquity, Facebook and more, and Wolfe’s penchant for journalistic excess serves him well time and again, even if the references aren’t as fluid as a younger writer might produce.
“Blood’s” ability to paint wickedly crisp portraits of Miami’s inner workings could become staples should enough copies move off the book store shelves. He captures the city’s night life, its arts scene and even its Cuban neighborhoods with the hunger of a man at the very start of his artistic life.
Along the way Wolfe swipes at journalists – taunting them for hauling their weak, schoolyard mindsets into their liberal adult mindsets – and hammers Miami for resembling not so much a melting pot as an oil and water blend refusing to change.
“Back to Blood” finds Wolfe critiquing a city worthy of a thorough cross-examination. He simply neglected to fill Miami with worthy characters to chart our journey.