Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: Our Book of the Week
According to the people who track these things, there are roughly 170,000 new books published each year in the United States -- an alarming percentage of which arrive, unbidden, at the L.A. Weekly office.
Each week, we'll offer a snapshot of a newish book that's caught our attention. Just as there's a lid for every crooked pot, surely, there's a reader for every one of these 170,000 books. This is our attempt to play matchmaker.
THE BOOK: Back to Blood
THE WRITER: Tom Wolfe
THE BACKSTORY: Tom Wolfe is back! This time, it's a 704-page novel that manages to be a breezy, funny read -- much more similar to his first, greatest novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, than his subsequent efforts, both of which had some great scenes and a few keen observations, but suffered from pacing problems.
THE STORY: Back to Blood combines the strongest elements of Bonfire of the Vanities -- racial politics in a divided city, sharp satire, and a cast of over-the-top characters -- with the only memorable part of the overlong disappointment A Man in Full: an examination of just what it means to be a man.
The setting is present-day Miami, and our protagonist is Officer Nestor Camacho, a cop of Cuban descent who finds himself in his own community's crosshairs when he rescues a compatriot at sea -- thereby dooming him to deportation to Castro's Cuba. His parents turn their backs, and his girlfriend ... well, his girlfriend hardly even notices, she's so busy betraying him for a series of older, richer men. Our hero must learn how to appease his chief and his family -- and somehow get the girl. (But we're not saying which girl, not just yet.)
DON'T READ THIS IF ... You fail to swoon for Wolfe's endlessly energetic prose and obsessive use of onomatopoeia. This book isn't as pointed as Bonfire -- but it's still Tom Wolfe all the way. If you love him, you'll love it. If you don't, well, stick with Telegraph Avenue, this fall's other Big Fat Novel.
READ THIS IF ... You love Tom Wolfe. You want a book crammed with plot and characters and noisy scenes. And above all, you have a certain admiration for an 81-year-old author who can still research the hell out of any subject he chooses. Yes, many of the people Wolfe brings to life are types (the spineless newspaper editor, the wannabe-French Haitian professor), but he knows their hopes and dreams and what they're wearing - in fact, one of the novel's triumphs is that, much more than the titular (and drippy) Charlotte Simmons, he "gets" the main female character here, Nestor's feckless girlfriend Magdalena Otero. A charmingly selfish Scarlett O'Hara in a black bustier and a miniskirt, Magdalena knows exactly what God gave her and doesn't hesitate to play it, as she puts it, a la Cubana.
A KEY QUOTE ... "At this point, the Mayor's expression and his tone turned fatherly. 'Cy, I want to tell you a couple things about this city. These are things you probably already know, but sometimes it helps to hear them out loud. I know it helps me. ... Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell -- in the world -- whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants ... recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years ... and that's a hell of a thing, when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you - I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, "Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody."'"