Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood surveys a new American century

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Back to Blood
By Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown and Company, 704 pp, hardcover

We may like to think that we’re so clever and classless and free, but Tom Wolfe knows the real score. As he reminds us in his latest novel, Back to Blood, we’re all shackled by our origins and hamstrung by our desires.

Although it’s a theme he previously wove into his 1987 bestseller, Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s clear there’s still plenty of meat on the bone. If Bonfire was a fin-de-siècle exposé of New York as Sodom and Gomorrah, then Back to Blood is a debut-de-siècle vision of Miami as a multicultural Babylon.

With a complex, multilinear plot, Wolfe follows, for the most part, the travails of policeman Nestor Camacho. He’s a good guy at heart, though callow and a bit dopey. Even after experiencing the fickle duality of fame—first through heroism, then by scandal—he’s unable to fully escape his parochial roots in Little Havana.

But it’s not only Nestor who’s trapped. There’s also his girlfriend, a Cuban who leverages her looks for upward mobility; a black police chief caught between his ideals and political expediency; a light-skinned Haitian student whose ability to “pass” belies the myth of a postracial America; and a buttoned-down newspaper editor and his star reporter, two of the last old-school WASPs in Miami. There’s only one character with potential for real freedom, a Russian oligarch, but even he’s captive to that most deadly of Wolfeian sins, hubris.

Naturally, they’re all on a collision course. You know there’ll be hell to pay in the end, but getting there is half the fun with such memorable and well-drawn characters, not to mention the rollicking and visual prose. A true product of the ’60s, New Journalist Wolfe creates a pop-art language of his own, equal parts Warhol and Lichtenstein, bathed in wit and splashed with bold neon colors.

While it would be near impossible to recreate the supernatural timing and prescience of Bonfire, this new work is no small feat. If nothing else, Back to Blood serves as a vibrant snapshot of millennial America: a nation transformed by immigration, fractured by race and class, and staggered by a loss of blood and treasure.

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