Tom Wolfe sets his latest novel in the volatile and dangerous city of Miami, drawing characters and cultures together to the point of breaking. Following the tumultuous life of policeman and second-generation Cuban Nestor Camacho, races clash and allegiances are drawn to the very life force that runs through our veins. It is here that Wolfe returns Back to Blood.
Though fiction, Back to Blood is really more of a character portrait of a city as a whole which lives and breathes through it citizens. There are the rich WASPs who run the media, Russian oligarchs who choose the “art” and Cubans – who have never set foot on their motherland – who enforce the law. Also thrown in the mix are drug-running African Americans and Haitians who are trying to pass as whites – or at least French.
In a massive interweaving of characters, readers follow the story of Nestor Camacho and the aftermath as he rescues, or captures and deports according to some locals, a Cuban fleeing the communist homeland. Through his and other’s stories, the underbelly, the high class and the geriatric community of Florida’s mixing pot are explored.
The characters Wolfe creates are engaging and thought-provoking. The pornography-addiction psychiatrist who is addicted to fame and wealth, and cruelly drags along his rich and helpless clients is a notable example. Also notable is the Haitian father who detests his own culture and language, to the point of alienating his son and denying his heritage. These characters are interesting and conflicted, but ultimately just minor stories along Nestor’s journey.
Nestor though proves less than interesting. Instead he is a man whom things happen to by the fault of his passive obedience to orders. Though he is hardly painted as a weakling and the pain and trials he goes through are very real, ultimately he is Wolfe’s greatest failing in the book as a character and as he passively has interesting and vibrant characters woven around him. This is unfortunate as Nestor is the spine of the story.
Just as engaging as the characters are the events in Miami they attend and cause. From heroic rescues to Russian mafia murders to mass nautical orgies, each page contains a new adventure. Those in the high life are found to be just as dirty, ignorant and bigoted as anyone else – if not more so.
The greatest strength Wolfe has a writer is the unerring realism he creates in his novels. His stories are fantastical and foreign, but never beyond belief. Instead of being alienated or taken to whimsical worlds, readers instead are immersed and taught about other cultures and people. This humanism is not faked either; Wolfe is well known for his reporting and the depth of investigation he puts into his novels, and Back to Blood is no exception.
However, a weakness of Wolfe is his propensity to overuse repetition and onomatopoeia in a modern style. This is unfortunate as it gives the book an unedited feeling and really detracts from the characters he has created and investigation he put into the book. Instead the book precariously and shoddily switches points of view between character’s minds and rich, third person reporting.
Another weakness is the vast number of stories present. In total there are about nine or ten narrators, each with their own chapter. Eventually all of their stories do intersect, and more often than not this diversity is a strength that emboldens the stories and moves them along. However, there are a few exceptions, as some chapters prove pointless on all levels. In fact, the opening prologue chapter of the book proves a complete wash as a disengaging mini-narrative of the WASP editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald that bears no relation to the larger arc and whose characters are never revisited, except the editor who plays a minor role near the book’s end.
Despite these weaknesses, Wolfe has written a fantastic book that not just tells a story, but also engages readers in an investigation of a culture that might not be so far geographically, but is miles away in familiarity. New facts and lessons about immigration, race and family are to be had as readers are pushed beyond the norm in Back to Blood.