BACK TO BLOOD, by Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown and Co., 704 pp., $30.
"Back to Bile" might have been a more appropriate title for Tom Wolfe's latest novel, a broad, weakly comic depiction of American incivility, one whose scope is picaresque, if not exactly Brueghelesque, and whose political and stylistic urgencies feel about 20 years out of date. Cubans have taken over Miami? Bango! as Wolfe might say. And has been saying, more or less, since the 1960s.
Using "Back to Blood" less as a portrait of an American city or American life than as an infomercial for his antediluvian attitudes toward modern art, racial politics and sex (previously discussed by the author in, respectively, "The Painted Word," "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons"), Wolfe attempts to do what Richard Price has done, better, in several of his crime novels/urbanscapes: assemble a crowd of characters who reflect a cross section of a community, its social conventions and its accepted wisdom, all of which, right or wrong, provide a moral about life in the present tense.
But Wolfe's characters are not only dislikable to the reader, they're held in utter contempt by their creator: Racist, tribal and often poisonously stupid, they possess a fundamentalist certainty about their righteous worldviews and are in intractable opposition to one another. Which is an accomplishment, given they all share the same voice, that of their author, who fills their thoughts with an encyclopedic assortment of esoterica. Take police chief Cyrus Booker, arriving for a meeting with the mayor: "Miami's was the weirdest of all the big-city city halls in the country, if you asked Cy Booker. It was a little two-story white stucco building done in the Art Moderne style, now called Art Deco, fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s. Pan American airways had built it in 1938 as a terminal for its new fleet of seaplanes, which touched down and took off on Biscayne Bay upon their bulbous pontoon feet. But the seaplane future fizzled, and the city took over the building in 1954 and made it an Art Moderne city hall -- and left the Pan American Airways logo on it! Yeah! And not just in one place, either." You can see why the book is 720 pages.
Wolfe's motley cast of characters includes Edward T. Topping IV, newly installed editor in chief of the venerable Miami Herald, a newspaper that has long been at odds with its increasingly Cuban nonreadership for being insufficiently anti-Castro, aka reporting news objectively. There's Nestor Camacho, a bodybuilding plainclothes cop who causes trouble for everyone when he rope-climbs a 70-foot boat mast to bring down a Cuban refugee who will then be deported. Although depicted as a hero by the Herald, Nestor is rejected by almost everyone he knows, including his parents and, just coincidentally, Magdalena, his social-climbing dish of a girlfriend, who has taken up with the porn-addiction doctor (or "shloctor") named Norman Lewis. Norman's patients include billionaire art collector/poseur Maurice Fleischmann, who provides Wolfe the opportunity to bash the real-life annual Art Basel Miami, which, in turn, provides the opportunity to go on -- and on -- about the ongoing scam known as modern art.
There are any number of reasons to be depressed by "Back to Blood," and not just the novel's oppressive spirit of ill will and ignorance. Early on, the reader gets the distinct sense that Wolfe dropped off the first draft of the book with his publisher, where it was promptly printed without vetting by an editorial eye. (Among other things, the author's repeated use of several very distinctive words betrays a lack of attention.) Wolfe's latest typographical tic, the use of a sideways stack of colons to set off his characters' interior comments (:::::: what was he thinking? ::::), would be fine, except that Wolfe spends so much time inside his characters' heads that the technique makes no real sense.
At the same time, "Back to Blood" possesses a bewildering lack of political urgency, which just makes it seem more sour. If it weren't for the mention of some late-model automobiles, one wouldn't really know if "Back to Blood" was set in the '90s or now. Which is rather fatal for a novel that presumes to have "today" in its crosshairs.