102 of 115 people found the following review helpful
When my mother died twenty one years ago, a Herald reporter, assigned to write her obituary, asked me if she resented all the changes that had come to Miami during the forty plus years she had lived in South Florida. My mother, having once quit the Junior League when asked to make a speech about "holding the color line", might have cancelled her subscription to the paper on the spot. She loved Miami and everything it had become. She watched in wonderment as the nouveau riche socialites invaded the emerging art community, of which as a member of the Art In Public Places Trust, she was a key player. Their never-ending social climbing and self-promoting "philanthropy" was the subject of many cocktail hour stories in my house.
So this is a very personal book for me. It is about the community Miami in which I grew up, and the cultural and economic forces which make the former sleepy Southern outpost, full of Georgians like my parents into a world-class city. Money and culture define the town-the old guard WASPs (like me), the first, second and third waves of Cuban migration, the Haitians, and now the Russians some of whom are more brutal than the Columbian cowboys of thirty years ago who once staged a gun battle on the Palmetto Expressway.
But it is money that truly defines this place as Tom Wolfe so aptly describes. Social climbing has never gone away, and if you want to be a crook around here, the surest way to succeed and escape the interest of law enforcement and the press is to spread cash around and get your name on every cultural institution in sight.
Wolfe may be the best chronicler of urban life in the modern era. Bonfire of the Vanities nails New York. A Man in Full skewers Atlanta. And now Back to Blood reveals Miami.
Not that many years ago, the Miami tourism bureau offered a poster of the back of a model, clad only with mask, snorkel and the skimpy bottom half of a bikini with the tag line "Miami. See It Like a Native." The model, who had been a secretary in a law firm where I was practicing, was not quite as exciting in real life as she was plastered in airports around the world.
This book, however, is. Even if you are not from here, it will amaze you.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Tom Wolfe may never get his historical due for his continuing refusal to get with the program. Today's fiction market is overwhelmingly aimed at women, who make up as much as 80 percent of the market. Tom Wolfe is a man writing often about a taboo subject - manhood. Maybe that's why this book has sold so poorly, and why I didn't even hear about it until more than a year after its publication.
Hopefully, one day, people will recognize he is our time's Charles Dickens, whose voluminous works chronicle a certain era like none other. Wolfe has never stopped being a journalist. Novels provide a less controversial medium for him to use his stream of consciousness technique for his characters; used in non-fiction, it left its author open to attack: `How do you know what Gus Grissom was thinking?' Whether in fiction or non-fiction, though, his technique always has had a certain credibility because of the depth of his research and his insight into human nature - his ability to see people as Everyman, acknowledge how the world looks from Everyman's eyes, and sense how Everyman gets through his day.
Wolfe's characters have a certain flatness to them, but it's a graphic-novel flatness, rich in detail, exaggerations intended. While spending an enormous amount of time inside their heads, he devotes little time to their back stories, a rebellion against a Freudian view of the human condition. Wolfe's characters don't dwell on yesterday, their childhoods, or long ago. They're not deeply conflicted. They are hard-working folks making their way up in life, people from small-town or working-class backgrounds confronted with the foibles and pretensions of modern life, executives with big mortgages and kids in private schools who worry about losing it all if they make the wrong move. They don't see psychiatrists.
What they think about is the intense experience of Now: What they've got to do today. How it will help them climb the ladder or bolster their position on it. Who they're in love with, or in heat for. What it looks like out in the street or at the chic restaurant or hot soiree or dingy crack house - right now, in riotous detail. If today goes right, they feel good. If not, they feel lousy.
There's much here familiar from previous books. Wolfe remains fascinated with art, design and fashion, of course: what status it conveys, what it connotes and to whom. There's his sense that we're preoccupied with the race, class, sex or walk of life we come from - in Miami, the Cubans, the blacks, the Haitians, the Russians, Miami's vanishing tribe of WASPs, and more - and he's determined to set it forth as exactly and convincingly as he can. A racial incident hyped by the media knocks a character for a loop, as in "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full". His over-the-top writing style, with its sound effects and run-on sentences and orgies of gorgeous words, is, if anything, amplified in this book from previous ones. (Some expressions like "buttery jowls" and "loamy loins" seem like old friends now.) He focuses on male strength and manhood, often symbolized by the strength of a man's hands, to do work (Charlotte Simmons' father), protect himself (Conrad Hensley in "A Man in Full") or commit some manly act of courage.
That last type of incident kicks off this book. It focuses on two Cuban-American characters in Miami: young police officer Nestor Camacho, and his estranged girlfriend Magdalena Otero. Many names in this book can be mined productively: the macho Camacho; Otero the "other", witness to but not part of the alien and decadent lives of the rich; the egotistical Cuban mayor Dio who thinks he's God.
Nestor commits a startling act of heroism and strength, rescuing a panicked refugee from the top of a sailing mast. Televised, he becomes a momentary hero but a pariah in the Cuban community for stymieing a fellow refugee's flight to freedom.
Magdalena meanwhile ditches him for unrelated reasons. A nurse, she's taken up with her boss, a wealthy, celebrity psychiatrist whose specialty of porn addiction gets him regularly on TV. Through her eyes Wolfe gives us his take on sexually unhinged modern life with the pervasiveness of pornography, ever more public acts of sex and nudity, and an orgy among the well-connected at a regatta. Only slowly does Magdalena realize her own boss is sex-addicted himself, and also exploiting his richest client's dependence upon him to get entree into his social circles. Wolfe has frequently written about sex in modern life, but here he chronicles ever-darker lows, symbolized by the billionaire porn addict's revolting STD symptoms.
To live in luxury with her boss, Magdalena leaves Hialeah's suffocating Cuban embrace. Nestor is expelled from it. His plight deepens when his take-down of an enormous and violent crack dealer turns into a racial incident broadcast on YouTube, leading to his suspension from the police force. He falls in with an ambitious young Miami Herald reporter investigating rumors that a wealthy Russian philanthropist may have committed a monumental fraud. Camacho has been abandoned by everyone around him - the police force, his family, his girlfriend - but never abandons devotion to his duty.
The work has some flaws. It ends abruptly. Wolfe's style, particularly the run-on sound effects, can become tedious, and if cut by a third would still get the message across. I have never understood what passages set off by :::::::::::: connote. Wolfe started using it long ago, but I've never gotten what, exactly, differentiates these passages from the rest of the consciousness flow.
And I don't understand the title, unless it suggest Miami is incurably tribal. The ending hints, ever so faintly, otherwise. There might be some rays of hope.
But Wolfe's insights into food, language, status, wealth and style are, as ever, dead on, and deeply revealing. And depressing. There is vanishingly little sense that among the upper crust, much style or dignity or human value at all survive amid all that money. A scene of slovenly billionaires stampeding through the Miami Basel art convention in search of deals, seems much like K-Mart shoppers hurrying to a blue light special - but with more vulgarity.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2013
This may not be Wolfe's best novel but it has some of his best characters and satire. Nestor the cop and Magdalena, the beautiful young nurse, seem authentic and fully developed, their personalities and problems very real. How does an 81-year old white New Yorker with a graduate degree from Yale get inside the minds and the world of these young Cubans, especially the female character? Not to mention his Russians -- both the oligarch and the drunken artist. The imagination, research, language, and attention to detail involved are all amazing. Really masterful.
Along the way there are some other happy surprises: Wolfe's satire of the Miami Basel scene, his scathing commentary on "art districts" (like Wynwood), his insights on the humorlessness of contemporary art experts, his comic send-up of the women at a Jewish "active seniors" community etc. The weakest, most indecipherable character might be John Smith, the preppie investigative journalist who most closely resembles Wolfe himself. So much for writing from experience.
If this book has a serious shortcoming it's that the plot takes too long to emerge. I read brilliant scene after brilliant scene but the storyline was faint to non-existent until I was at least half way through. Wolfe's prose and observations are absorbing enough that I put up with it, but for a while it was more of a montage than a novel. When the novel finally hits its stride, it's hard to put down, but I would have liked it to happen earlier and last longer. Also, some of the characters introduced in detail in the early chapters vanish and don't reappear until much much later, in roles that don't seem equal to the foundation Wolfe built for them. The ending is a bit abrupt -- a chapter or two more could have helped. And the classic Wolfe sound effects and repetition -- "BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung" -- can get tiresome.
Still, no regrets. For anyone seeking to find fault with Wolfe, this book does offer some east targets. But it's still a minor masterpiece. It's not the first Tom Wolfe book I would choose to read, but it won't be the last.
69 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2012
I loved "Bonfire of the Vanities" and I liked "A Man in Full." This novel, "Back to Blood," is like a weak parody of those stories. It is rambling, it is dull in long stretches, and it ends abruptly with no resolution to the stories of some of the main characters. Tom Wolfe clearly spent a lot of time driving around Miami, and clearly attended some fancy parties and shopped and ate at some Cuban and Russian establishments, but he can no longer put together a real novel. Much of the first half of the book is dedicated to describing the daily rounds of a psychiatrist who counsels pornography addicts and his wealthy patient. Those two characters drop completely from the novel about 2/3 of the way through. The story line that is then picked up, of Russian art forgeries, is interesting but unsatisfactory - and it wraps up in two pages. The only female character who we have gotten to know, Magdalena, is also dropped like a hot potato. The ending feels as if an editor told the author to wrap it up now, and so he did. A very frustrating read not worth purchasing.
106 of 135 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2012
BACK TO BLOOD is a brilliant fulfillment of Wolfe's literary philosophy. In his 1989 essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," he warned of those who wrote "on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme."
Sure enough, as Wolfe foretold, "New types of novels came in waves, each trying to establish an avant-garde position out beyond realism. There were Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels, and novels of 'Radical Disjunction' in which plausible events and plausible characters were combined in fantastic or outlandish ways, often resulting in dreadful catrastrophes."
Some of those catastrophes nearly sank several imprints, who now rely on vampires and spanking to save them.
BACK TO BLOOD is not one of those catastrophes. It is sharply observed, tightly plotted, and densely imagined...Tom Wolfe learned Miami, then re-created it with epic power and kaleidoscopic detail.
The trademark Wolfeian energy is still there. In fact he's ramped it up, and standard punctuation isn't enough to contain the volcanic urgency of his sentences. Ellipses proliferate...he just can't stop himself...they keep on coming. CAPITAL LETTERS WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS! explode off the page. A multiple colon::::::::::::: erupts liberally and, occasionally, a bit bafflingly.
The characters are broadly drawn, but the narrative is more about chaos than character. Cops and mobsters, corrupt reporters and politicians, clueless art collectors, crazed senior citizens, all rush and bump and crash into each other like Coney Island bumper cars. No one remains innocent - not even one soul - in this confederacy of empty promises and fake jewelry. The canvas is big and wild, the people larger than life, and it all reads like a personal memoir...explosively populated with characters reminiscent of Studs Lonigan, Scarface, and a Fellini circus.
In a nod to Jean-Paul Sartre, who placed three souls in a room and found that "hell is other people," Wolfe dissects an entire city where "everybody hates everybody."
This is Miami. This is America. This is today. As a Latino who has lived in Miami and New York, I know that Tom Wolfe's reportage is a bit selective. But despite his upper-class imprisonment, Wolfe's BACK TO BLOOD is a near-perfect evocation of our human condition circa 2012. The sweep of Trollope's THE WAY WE LIVE NOW and Veblen's THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS, the damning clarity of Zola's horse in the mountain, the pure journalism of John Reed's INSURGENT MEXICO...I found it all here in this passionate, intelligent, and endlessly entertaining novel.
Bravo, Tom Wolfe.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2012
As someone who lives 25 miles north of Miami and spent 6 months in the city itself, its obvious that Tom Wolfe did his research.
As one Cubana in Miami told me: "Miami is like a salad, you mix all types of ingredients who work together duing the day; then at night they realize the ingredients in the salad are separate." Wolfe nails that concept. The Anglos are usually a world unto themselves, though they sometimes interact a little tensely with the enormous Spanish speaking population. The Spanish speaking population, which stifles its members with uniform views, generally does not get along real well with the black inhabitants, and vice versa. The blacks also have their differences. The Afro-Americans look down on the Haitians. The vibrant art scene and Russian oligarchs concerned about security and paying huge sums in cash for enormous mansions and art, concerned about security, are typical newspaper fodder in Miami and members of the population in Wolfe's masterpiece.
Wolfe takes all these groups and numerous events and intermingles them in an entirely believable way. The gutless newspaper editor in chief; the instinctively suave Ivy League reporter; the body building Cubano cop with too tight clothes and a heart of gold; the beautiful Cubana sleeping her way into high society; the biilionaire with a porn addiction; the social climbing quack psychiatrist; the rich suave Russian oligarch art enthusiast; the Haitian creole family; and a score of supporting cast members all mix with each other and influence each others' lives in a seamless, natural and totally believable way. A couple of days after finishing the novel, I caught myself wondering how some of them were doing, as if they were real people, before reminding myself these were fictional characters.
The novel is full of humor. In particular, Wolfe ruthlessly makes fun of social climbing, modern art and narcisssism.
In sum, Wolfe has written a humorous, touching and well researched tour de force that kept me thinking long after reading it.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2014
I read most of Tom Wolfe's journalism and non-fiction books (sometimes loving the ebullient style, sometimes hating it) before he began writing novels. Now that four have been written, there is clearly a pattern - "Tom Wolfe novels" are long, they are contemporary, they are detailed, they are snarky, they connect characters from many different social classes in many-layered plots, they are evidently the products of substantial field research, they both revere and despise the faltering attempts that their insecure, self-doubting characters (sometimes innocently good, sometimes knowingly evil) make to achieve their dreams and aspirations. I loved "Bonfire", which took aim at the easy target of Wall Street greed and privilege and disliked "Charlotte", a long and sour story about college life and deflowerment.
"Back to Blood" is a return to stellar form! In a story filled with selfish, scheming characters, there is room for nobility. Many chapters are wonderful, stand-alone set pieces unto themselves: police adventures (on land and sea), the Art Basel festival, the Columbus Day regatta, a Florida strip club and others.
For me, no one is better at putting the reader inside the minds of self-aware, self-doubting, tortured and tormented characters. You are with them, moment by moment, as they perceive and process their experiences; careening from ecstasy to misery as their perception, awareness and consideration of what's happening to them changes. Done with a combination of truth, comedy, style and typography, this is an essential part of what makes "a Tom Wolfe novel" what it is. And when it works, you as the reader are propelled from one page to the next, irresistibly drawn to the next the social blunder, the next outrageous and politically incorrect thought, the next twist that suddenly puts a momentarily-stable character once again in trouble, well over his or her head in a strange and larger world, with forces and rules never encountered before.
This is a wonderful novel about a corner of America, and a complex social world of immigrants and natives, that is well worth the time and effort to read!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2013
A great story! A keen social Observer! Maybe not his best-written, but classic Tom Wolfe!
Don't pass this one up simply because it's set in the alien cultures of Miami.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2013
At least I never thought mystery novels were something I would like. I really found this book to be amazingly captivating and hated that it ended.
47 of 62 people found the following review helpful
"Back to Blood" refers to the bloodlines in the intense racial climate of modern Miami, but no doubt also alludes to Tom Wolfe's return to gritty metropolitan exposition a la his first novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities". After a much-maligned detour into the charmed but perhaps equally gritty lives of modern college kids in the compelling "I Am Charlotte Simmons". I thoroughly enjoyed the detour, but most readers and fans will enjoy his latest work exponentially more.
"Blood" has all the authentic racial descriptions that would be the stuff of stereotypes if they weren't so accurate, all the gimmicky sexual tension and innuendo that makes for a great R-rated blockbuster, and all the valuable insight into character that "Bonfire" had. Only this sprawling work is set in a much more trendy Latin city, complete with all the sensational, hot-button topics concerning said city such as illegal immigration, overpriced art, and of course, Russian mafia-run strip joints.
The prose is tighter than in "Bonfire" and Wolfe is a little better about his newspaper-sounding articles though his crutch "this way and that"s (see my "Charlotte Simmons" review) are still prominent. He even puts it in the mouth of characters who wouldn't say the phrase. Still, it seems Wolfe has been browsing the thesaurus to pad his already excellent vocabulary (you'll never read "declivities" the same way again). And the read, though a lengthy 704 pages, is just as fast as other compelling Wolfe novels and only contains a few unbelievable bits of dialogue. With a return to the grit, "Back to Blood" will surely live up to its title and the name of one of the foremost modern novelists.