Back to Blood Tom Wolfe

Cape, pp.704, £20, ISBN: 9780224097277

This is an exhilarating novel. Its general gist is that in a multicultural society so-called honour often trumps virtue, political expediency frequently wins out over inconvenient truth, and comforting illusion tends to be preferable to disagreeable reality. And assimilation is very hard, especially in Miami, where the entire story is set.

The two central characters are Nestor and Magdalena, second-generation Cubans, who begin the book as a couple. Each has a difficult journey to its end, both have to combat monsters (Nestor literally) and both learn a little more about themselves and a lot more about the wider world as a consequence.

Magdalena, a strikingly beautiful nurse, keen to improve herself and leave the Cuban ‘ghetto’ (she knows it isn’t quite the right word) abandons Nestor to take up with a psychiatrist who administers to (and thereby maintains the custom of) wealthy pornography addicts by, if I may so put it, inflaming their propensities. In turn, Magdalena throws him over for something even worse. As always in Tom Wolfe, there is plenty here about sex, and the power of sex.

Nestor is a cop who wears his clothes a size too small in order to show off his musculature, and sports ‘magno darkest, supremo darkest’ sunglasses. In the course of his duty, showing extreme courage and herculean strength, he manages to alienate himself from his own family and ‘community’ (a word Wolfe subtly hints we should be wary of), and, in saving lives (two, perhaps three), to enrage the mayor with his failure to recognise ethnic sensibilities.

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And boy are there ethnicities and attendant sensibilities. We are introduced to Cubans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, ‘black folks’, WASPS, Americanos, Jewish New Yorkers, the odd ‘sullen Mexican’ and Russians. None of them comes out well. Other than Nestor, who grows wise, and Magdalena, who, like her biblical namesake, recovers her purity, the only sympathetic character is the black chief of police, Cyrus Booker (perhaps named after that ancient paragon of racial tolerance, Cyrus the Great, whose Persian empire of the sixth century BC included many different ‘communities’).

The plot, such as it is (don’t worry, there is plenty of story to keep you wondering what happens next), revolves around one of the author’s favourite targets: modern art. Wolfe has very little time for it or the circus of the wealthy that surrounds and sustains it. He puts crude debunkings of sacred names (Picasso, for example) into the mouth of an alcoholic forger of Russian constructivist and suprematist painting (Malevich, Kandinsky), whose fakes, Wolfe seems to suggest, are really no more fake than the originals they ape. Modern art is itself a con.

Modern art is joined under the heat by city politics, reality TV, psychiatry, the press, and anything else that can be singed in passing (video games, YouTube, modern manners in general). The heroes do essential, proper jobs. A Cuban policeman and a nurse, they are both curious to know more about the world and are repeatedly shocked by what they find both about it and about themselves. There is a hint of Candide here. Perhaps it is a text that Wolfe’s status-anxiety riddled Haitian professor teaches in his French literature classes.

The satire is scalpel-like and very funny (I particularly liked the account of performance artist Heidi Schlosser’s ‘De-Fucked’) and, as with most great satire, it is fundamentally conservative. Wolfe is an unashamed moralist, and this is what gets up the noses of his ever-so-literary critics. They would much rather he was thought of as a mere entertainer.

Which he is as well. His celebrated style, with its capitals, italics, massed colons (to indicate a character’s thoughts) repetitions, onomatopoeia and elisions infuriates some, perhaps many, as unnecessary business. Not this reader. Wolfe is using the tools available; excitement is promised and delivered. Words themselves are made to pump up the energy. What other writer in English could (or would) make the phrase ‘ecchymotic-purple integument’ sound spot-on, vivid, and include it in the same sentence as ‘Halusian Gulp’, Wolfe’s own baffling but rich term for imminent death, first used in The Right Stuff?

Back to Blood could be shorter, for there is repetitious repetition as well as rhetorical; but had it been, then sadness at finishing it would have descended sooner. This is a novel that, as Tom Wolfe so often seems to do, brings the news.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated