Tom Wolfe New Book Review: Back to Blood Sizzles in the Shallows

It’s an experience more familiar in the pre-GPS era: You’re lost, winding this way and that, not fully certain whether you’re getting somewhere or going back until, finally and suddenly, you round a corner and just like that, you’re there.

That’s Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, a 699-page tour through the simmering tensions of present-day Miami. Published just weeks before a presidential election in a campaign season almost fully devoid of real discussion of race and immigration, Back to Blood is a necessary and aspirational effort to explore cross-racial divides that, unfortunately, for all of us, never live up to their own lofty promise. This critical racial dialogue, within Wolfe’s pages, remains stalled.

In the author’s Miami, city leaders aim less for reconciliation than simply doing enough so that the issues can be ignored another day. The smallness of the characters’ thinking is best illuminated during a closed-door conversation between top policy-makers when one says to another, “I mean we can’t mix them together, but we can secure a place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they’re all on the same level plane.”

On the shores of Biscayne Bay, Wolfe’s Crash-like ensemble guides us across racial fault lines during a spell of inflamed hatred. It starts at a breakneck pace when Cuban-American cop, Nestor Camacho, foils a refugee’s attempt to slip into Miami by way of an anchored schooner. Ostracized by his family and community, Camacho finds friendship in a Miami Herald reporter named John Smith, there to cover the maligned rescue. 

It’s a coup for Smith, who garners attention from his editors and picks up a source inside the police department to unearth information on a new-to-town Russian’s mysterious $70-million donation to a local art museum. 

It’s around the museum and the donated paintings that drama entangles a veritable who’s who of caricatures: the mysterious Russian oligarch and his band of henchmen; a Cuban nurse looking for a hero to pull her out of her parents’ life in Hialeah, “Little Havana”; a psychologist specializing in porn addiction; an aged newspaperman trying not to rock the boat as he counts down the days to retirement; and more. We can flesh some characters out further, but only a little, and that’s the problem. Take Camacho, for example, a heroic figure described thusly: “if he got any more muscles, I don’t know where he’d put them.” Everything about Camacho screams of his masculinity, the Camaro, the trend-setting workout that takes off after he makes an unexpected TV appearance and the suffix that ends his name, “-macho.” 

With pages of random capitalizations and onomatopoeia, Wolfe constantly takes readers out of his narrative with a sort of wink as if to say, “Get it?” It results in a work of suspense with little, well, suspense. The surprises aren’t … surprising. Instead, there’s just a story that unfolds slowly, exemplified in a 19-page, ill-fated search for a parking space.

It’s more than lamentable Wolfe’s tale never hits its stride because there’s a story to be told and a conversation to be had, both of which are never realized. Wolfe’s narrators don’t even seem to really try, resigned to the fact that their — our — differences are too much to overcome when we can fall back on the commonalities shared with those just like us. One of our narrators puts it: “Everybody ... all of them ... it's back to blood! Religion is dying ... but everybody still has to believe in something.” That something, we learn, is not science or rationality but "only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out.” The Arabs, too. “All people, everywhere, you have no choice but — Back to blood!”

In the end, we’re left wishing it hadn’t been so, and waiting for the next effort to help us see not only the way things are, but also the way they could be.

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