When I began reading Tom Wolfe, I first fell in love with his essays, only dimly aware of his earlier classics such as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Right Stuff.”
Then I read his Southern novel “A Man in Full,” and then “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” a stinging commentary on college campuses and the moral and political challenges students experience (it should be a required read for parents of college students), and I was hooked.
His perspective is gigantically cosmopolitan, making him a kind of modern-day Dickens, in which every corner of society is incorporated. His new novel “Back to Blood” came out last year as an exploration of modern-day Miami’s social and political tensions, and it promised nothing different.
Wolfe’s characters in his novels often tend to represent certain ideas or cultural or beliefs, which he then sets loose to interact with one another.
“Reflective” may be another way to look at it. Regardless, “Back to Blood” is no exception, featuring larger-than-life characters embodying every nuanced cultural distinction in Miami.
Nestor Camacho is a Cuban-born policeman whose heroic actions have turned his own family and community against him; his ex-girlfriend Magdelena, is the self-centered and glamorously attractive nurse who lives as kind of a human leech on males.
Their lives are intertwined with an African-American chief of police; a scared, politically-correct newspaper editor; a young upstart journalist; an exotic Russian art dealer; a Haitian French teacher and his naïve daughter, and terrifying psychiatrist who charades as a healer of his own disease.
Their interactions test the meaning of freedom in the United States, and questions what morals our society values in a post-modern age (Wolfe’s answer: big cars, sex, and money).
Wolfe’s portrait of Nestor is perhaps the most sympathetic out of all of the characters.
Nestor’s struggle to become his own man (with “Man in Full” flavors) is due to learning to follow his own instinct outside of family, cultural or even job obligations.
His transformation is subtle and even in some sense anticlimactic compared to the violent events around him. But then real changes always are.
Wolfe loves commentary, and as quickly as his characters act he interprets the actions in terms of their larger social implications.
While some may find this distracting, Wolfe’s observations are poignant and relevant, if at times disturbing.
In one disorienting scene, Magdalena is forced to stay through a raucous and horrific orgy on a boat party.
Her panic, and ours, rises with the frantic energy around her, and also because we realize it means … nothing.
The book is intense in regards to graphic language and sexual content, so readers should be advised.
Wolfe’s strong suit is clearly showing everything that is wrong in American life, and yet his answer to it is not always so clear.
What he ultimately does accomplish in the novel is a contrast between alternatives: the path of unbridled, mindless freedom – one interpretation of the American Dream – and a more philosophical one, that of deliberate, conscious decisions; a path always met with resistance and cost.
Ultimately, for Wolfe’s characters, the truth is in the choosing.