Book Review
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Seventy-seven Exclamation Points in 20 Pages

"Back To Blood" by Tom Wolfe (Little Brown, $30)

Tom Wolfe, the man in the white suit, entered the consciousness of mainstream America in 1987 when his first novel, "Bonfire Of The Vanities," soared to the top of the bestseller lists. That novel's title was a reference to the middle-ages practice of burning objects that might tempt a person to sin. The novel told the story of a wealthy New York City bond trader who considered himself to be the Master of the Universe but had his life destroyed when he and his mistress accidentally strayed into and got lost in a bad Bronx neighborhood while driving to the airport. It later became a very successful movie starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Wolfe was not the overnight success that many thought him to be. He was an ex-reporter whose nonfiction books dated back to the 1960s. He is known for his association with and influence over the New Journalism literary movement. His nonfiction is credited with introducing the terms "statusphere," "the right stuff," "radical chic," "the Me Decade," "social x-ray" into the English lexicon. In recent years he's been known for his public spats and disputes with other writers including John Updike, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and John Irving.

Wolfe's recently released fourth novel, "Back To Blood" (the term came from "Bonfire Of The Vanities"), takes place in an unruly, hyperbolic but undeniably recognizable Miami that is rampant with cultural clashes, social climbers, power mongers and sexual deviants. The story is told in the "close-third-person" voice, a style that mimics a character's thought pattern and speech to a point that often makes it feel more like first person.

The main characters are Nestor Camacho, a Cuban cop who walks a precarious high-wire between the Anglo community and his own people; Dr. Norman Lewis, a pornography-addiction specialist who's addicted to pornography himself and Magdelena Otero, Dr. Lewis' nurse and mistress as well as Nestor's girlfriend. Add to these characters the following: Sergei Korolyov, a Russian mobster; John Smith, a Yale-educated rookie Miami Herald reporter; a Haitian college professor; a Cuban mayor; and a black police chief, all of whom represent the component parts of a city that the Cuban mayor describes as "not a melting pot because that's not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes." Wolfe's Miami is instead a loose conglomeration of communities in which "all people everywhere have one last thing on their minds -- Back to blood!" As Wolfe states it, modern Miami is a city in which "everyone hates everybody."

In this multi-plot novel, Wolfe attempts to give an epic overview of modern Miami from the purportedly unbiased viewpoint of an outsider. Nestor has the Cuban community up in arms after he prevents an illegal immigrant from qualifying for "dry-foot" status. His girlfriend, Magdelena, is attempting to assimilate herself into Anglo society by having an affair with her Anglo employer. A Russian mobster is trying to buy respectability by gifting bogus "masters" to a Miami art museum. Other side plots abound.

Wolfe also uses "Back To Blood" as a forum to finger every racial sore point in Miami. First Nestor sets off the Cubans. The Cuban-American mayor's solution is to lean on the black police chief to park Nestor some place obscure until the political risk subsides. Instead Nestor gets transferred to the Crime Suppression Unit where a drug bust triggers another racial incident.

One odd feature in the book that took some getting used to is Wolfe's use of little dot-blocks, six closely spaced periods on top of six others to mark off passages of first-person interior musings. Another author might have just used italics but Wolfe already over-uses italics, plus unnecessary repetition, glaring capitals blurting Tourette's-like exclamations (there are 77 exclamation points in the novel's 20-page prologue alone). One scene in particular that may grate on the reader has a description of a Coast Guard boat racing across the water in which SMACK in capitals is repeated 14 times in one run-on sentence.

-- Reviewed by David

and Nancy Beckwith

Book News:

Key West author and musician Hal Howland's respected memoir "The Human Drummer: Thoughts on the Life Percussive,"which the great Hal Blaine says "belongs in every musician's library" and manufacturer Bill Ludwig Jr. calls "truly a masterpiece" is now available in a revised second-edition e-book readable in all formats. "The Human Drummer" has in-depth interviews with the Doors' John Densmore and the Moody Blues' Graeme Edge (in the first of which a notorious Ringo Starr rumor is laid to rest); personal recollections of Badfinger, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Fred Begun, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Gary Burton, Peter Erskine, William Faulkner, Vic Firth, Robert Frost, Saul Goodman, Elvin Jones, John F. Kennedy, Gary Lewis of the Playboys, Bill Ludwig Jr., Bob Mathias, Joe Morello, Max Roach, Collin Walcott, Tony Williams, Frank Zappa and other public figures. Also a first-hand account of the famed 1968 Jim-less Doors concert in Amsterdam; musical and social commentary; advice for students, parents and professionals; musical memories of America, Europe, the Middle East and a colorful career in pop, jazz and classical music; esoteric information for percussionists; groundbreaking timpani research; a professional directory; a satirical glossary; a comprehensive bibliography; and two adventures on the high seas. (Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony, et al. priced at $5.99)