Sunday February 24, 2013
Review by MARTIN SPICE
Back To Blood
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Little, Brown, 704 pages
MAKE no mistake about it, this is one large brick of a book. But if the thought of 700+ pages puts you off, then feel comforted by the fact that the print is large and the lines well spaced. That and the fact that this a rolling roller-coaster of a ride from the moment the book opens to its final page.
Tom Wolfe is best known as one of the leading lights of a movement that became known as the new journalism. Gone was the traditional persona of the journalist as a dispassionate and uninvolved recorder of events, and in its place was a real attempt to recreate the story and give the reader a feeling of the events and people involved. Stylistically, a number of devices more usually associated with literary texts were employed, such as dialogue and scene by scene reconstructions. Journalistic fact and literary fiction were edging closer together.
Wolfe has always been regarded as an acute commentator on society, nowhere more so than in that chronicle of 1980s New York greed and disgust, The Bonfire Of The Vanities. “There is a saying,” he has offered in interview, “that New York is about money, Washington is about power and Miami is about sex”, a comment that brings us nicely to his latest book, Back To Blood, which is set in Miami and is not entirely about sex but is very noticeably about race.
Miami is not unique in being a city with a huge racial mix but is certainly unusual in the extent of it. Policed in large part by émigré Cubans with a Hispanic mayor and a black police chief, Miami is not the usual American city. Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Columbians, Senegalese, Russians and still more races and nationalities walk the streets of the city and people the pages of the novel.
And to a fair extent, they all revert to their race when pushed, or, as the title has it, go back to blood. Most things in this book ultimately do.
Wolfe runs a number of plot lines simultaneously. One of the first concerns Nestor Comacho, a cop of Cuban origin whose differences from his Americano colleagues are played up from the start. Speeding across the harbour waters, Nestor’s muscle-toned body is a stark contrast to the more formless bulk of his colleagues. Their mission is to rescue a man who has got himself stuck at the top of a boat’s mast. Nestor volunteers to go up and get him down and chooses to do so by climbing the rope hand-over-hand, as he does in his gym workouts. In front of a noisy crowd he reaches the top of the mast and then caps his performance by wrapping his legs around the man’s waist and lowering him to the ground, once again going hand-over-hand. It is a prodigious feat of strength and the crowd loves it.
Unfortunately for Nestor, his family, his girlfriend and his community don’t. It turns out that the man he has rescued is a Cuban refugee seeking asylum. The rules are that he will be granted asylum only if his feet touch American soil. As he has been lowered down to ground level and put back on a boat, he will now be deported. Nestor goes from hero to villain in one move, despised by his own people. If it’s Cubans against American law, there is no question who the Cuban community will side with: back to blood. It is a theme that emerges again and again in the book, regardless of the ethnic and national origins of the characters involved.
You will not get far into a Tom Wolfe novel without having to come to terms with his style. His writing has an exuberance and a loudness like no-one else’s. Exclamation marks abound and capital letters blaze across the page. This is language that shouts. It is coupled with linguistic pyrotechnics of all kinds. If literary styles can be likened to an orchestra then Wolfe resides almost entirely in the brass section. There is little here that is subtle, nothing that is understated. It is megaphone prose that clamours for attention – and to a large degree gets it.
Back To Blood is a good read. Wolfe is a strong storyteller and if you can tolerate its over-the-top exuberance, the writing will sweep you away. The stories he tells here combine at some level to give us a portrait of a city in all its turmoil while largely ignoring the subtleties of the heart and mind that constitute most people’s inner lives.
There is plenty of power, plenty of money and plenty of sex. To the charge that Wolfe’s world has something of a cartoon quality about it I would concur, but there are other rewards in this instance that make Back To Blood an eminently entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile read.