Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.
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.
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.Read more ›
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.
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.Read more ›