Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe
There’s a scene towards the end of Back to Blood when we finally get inside the secret studio of the elusive Russian artist Igor Drukovich. In public an arch-devotee of realism, Igor has hidden away in his studio a series of copies of modernist, surrealist, abstract and cubist masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinksy and Braque — the very artists he sneers at in public. But it turns out they are perfect forgeries Igor has been living off, laughing behind his hand as he deludes the art establishment which has rejected him.
It’s hard not to suspect this might have something to do with Wolfe’s own very public spat with the literary modernists. Like his character Igor, Wolfe is an exponent of realism in an age when it’s out of fashion. Like Igor, he has publicly attacked the fashionable . Is he perhaps hinting that, like Igor, he could effortlessly replicate his rivals’ works, while they couldn’t copy his realism?
The thing is, though, that Wolfe hasn’t proved all that versatile in his fictional career. After the dazzling success of Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full he decided to turn his hand to something different in I am Charlotte Simmons. He tried to write the sort of novel his rivals excel at, set on the small canvas of a university campus, and focused on the interior life of its characters, but the result fell flat. Robbed of material suited to the satire at which he excels, he fell back on toilet humour — literally, with a grotesque recital of the gruntings and strainings of a male undergraduate at stool.
Thankfully in Back to Blood he is back to what he does best, painting the life of an entire city, and following a wide cast of characters and the intricate ways they’re connected. The protagonist is Nestor Camacho, an ambitious young cop. The child of Cuban immigrants, he sees a career in the police as his passport to acceptance by the wider community. The irony, as Wolfe gleefully describes, is that the Cubans already are the wider community of Miami, a city where immigrants are the majority. And Nestor’s moment of triumph, as he saves the life of a would-be Cuban immigrant from Cuba live on TV, is also his downfall, as the man is arrested and deported, and Nestor is disowned by his own family.
That’s the moment which sets everything else off in Back to Blood, which will force Nestor into an uneasy alliance with John Smith, a WASP reporter who is trying to uncover the truth about the mysterious connection between Igor the artist and Sergei Korolyov, a Russian billionaire who has bought his way to the sort of social acceptance Nestor yearns for. Which will force Nestor out of his prestigious job on a police boat and onto a crime beat where he will be accused of brutality towards an African American suspect, and meet a stunning Haitian beauty.
And at the same time Nestor’s old girlfriend, Magdalena, is on her own quest for acceptance, cut adrift from her Cuban immigrant roots just like Nestor. But while he is fighting to clear his name amid the crack dens of Miami, she seems on a relentless rise, with a rich new boyfriend who can take her to the most glittering parties in town.
It’s the perfect canvas for Wolfe, who gets to give us a succession of the set pieces he is justly famous for: billionaires fighting like children to get the best paintings at an art sale; a police raid on a crack den; a reality TV show crew trying to start a fight at a high society party; Nestor and John Smith undercover at a lap dancing club.
This is a novel about outsiders, and their quest for acceptance. But the joke’s on them, because they live in a city where everyone’s an outsider, where even the privileged WASP newspaper editor is ill at ease and feels out of place. There’s a scene where Nestor and John Smith are tailing Igor out of the city, and they come to a place which Nestor finds disconcerting and unfamiliar. “We’ve just entered a strange land…called America!” John Smith says, and then, echoing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Miami anymore”.
America is, of course, a country founded on immigration, but Wolfe’s Miami is still in the crucible, being formed, while the rest of America has stratified around it. The structures of the rest of America don’t apply in this Miami, it is a city of the future.
For all its zest and fun, this is a big, serious book then, about a big, serious subject, every bit as ambitious as Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, and to a large extent Wolfe pulls it off. That his conclusions often seem at odds with current fashionable thought doesn’t matter a bit. He deserves a hearing.
But Back to Blood is not without its faults. The novel starts superbly, hurling the reader in medias res, and ends on an exhilarating high with Nestor and John’s newspaper investigation, which proves that even in the days of the internet, it’s still possible to write classic newsroom high drama.
But, surprisingly, it sags in the middle. This is largely down to the Magdalena subplot. While Nestor remains a sympathetic character throughout his tribulations, it’s harder to root for Magdalena after she callously ditches him on her very first appearance — and at his lowest ebb too. Her new lover, Norman the sex doctor, and Maurice his billionaire patron, are deliciously grotesque at first but after a while they just become grating.
It’s not till Magdalena gets involved with the Russian billionaire Sergei that her subplot picks up — Wolfe pulls the oligarch off brilliantly, his ruthless exercise of power at once enticing and chilling.
The other problem with Back to Blood is, still more surprisingly, with its style. Wolfe is a great prose stylist: he was famous for his style long before he ever turned to fiction, back when he was a pioneer of the New Journalism.
But in Back to Blood it all seems a little too overblown, there’s too much onomatopoeia, too many arch new phrases for the familiar, too many interjections from — ¡Dios mío! — the characters’ own voices, too much description, too much of everything. There are even two scenes, in the lapdancing club and on a boat, where Wolfe feels impelled to embed the beat of the music in his prose BEAT thung as if for the BEAT thung benefit of BEAT thung readers who BEAT thung have never BEAT thung been in a night club. It all gets a bit tiresome and hard to read.
Indeed, in the lapdancing club scene, there’s a sentence that’s so jarringly out of character for Wolfe that you read it twice: “The smile looked like a mean streak turned up at the corners”. It’s a great sentence, but it’s more like something Raymond Chandler would have written, and it makes you suddenly aware of how, for all his brilliance, Wolfe may have become something of a prisoner of his own dazzling style. And it makes you wonder if he does have a secret studio like Igor’s somewhere, after all.