Tom Wolfe is a big name in contemporary American literature but I’ve only just read one of his books. And what a book it is. Back to Blood is a 600-plus-page drama-filled novel set in Miami, the only US city dominated by a minority, Cuban Latinos. There are the Cubans, who dominate Miami politically and culturally, the Anglos (whites), a dwindling minority clinging to their privileged lifestyles, mysterious Russian tycoons, with African-Americans and Haitian immigrants also in the mix.
A Cuban-American cop performs a daring rescue of a Cuban refugee atop a ship mast in full view of TV cameras and a crowd, making him a media hero and a traitor to his own people. According to American law, any Cuban refugee who reaches American soil gets to stay (as a “dryfoot”) while those who are picked up in the water are taken back to Cuba via Guantanamo Bay. The “hero” Nestor gets ostracized by his own family and to make things worse, outrage from his own Cuban-American community forces him to be transferred to another unit. But of course, this doesn’t solve the problem because Nestor then gets involved in a drug bust where he takes down a black dealer twice his size but is videotaped saying some racist words in the heat of the moment. The police force has another racist scandal involving Nestor. A hotshot reporter reaches out to Nestor for help with looking into a suspicious Russian tycoon who donated US$70 million worth of contemporary art to a new Miami museum. They investigate some intriguing leads but the plot then ties in a little too neatly from this point and the ending is abrupt.
Wolfe spares little in describing bluntly and in detail the social dynamics at play. Actually, he revels in highlighting the craziness and absurdities of these dynamics. The cast features the traditional Cuban lower-middle class, a Haitian creole professor who idolizes French agonizing over his son speaking creole and a social-climbing TV celeb sex therapist who employs and steals Nestor’s girlfriend. The writing certainly isn’t politically correct but Wolfe makes sure no race emerges unscathed.
I wasn’t a fan of some of the writing devices such as the frequent interjection of words describing sound effects in the middle of sentences like “the boat bounces, comes down again … SMACK but Officer Camacho’s fellow SMACK cops”. As you can see, it has an annoying effect.
Wolfe does also have some gems such as when Nestor describes his own lack of knowledge of high culture in that “he wouldn’t last two sentences in a conversation about art.”
The novel loses some steam in the latter stages as the focus shifts from ethnic-social dynamics to crime and politics. Maybe I am too interested in that kind of issue, but I find it makes places seem more realistic. With the recent set of racial incidents in the US, race relations are certainly still a contemporary issue.
Wolfe presents a vivid painting of swirling colors at first before winding it down into a black and white sketch.