Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Cape, RRP£20, Little, Brown, RRP$30, 720 pages
There was a time when Tom Wolfe was a fine writer, joining forces with Truman Capote and Joan Didion to reinvent American journalism. In his early essay collections, including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Wolfe brought novelistic life to cultural analysis; in full-length books such as the non-fiction tale of US astronauts The Right Stuff (1979) and his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), he drilled through the heart of America’s romances with heroism and money.
Wolfe surgically anatomised subcultures by recognising their rules and skewering their hypocrisies in carefully honed prose. But in his increasingly self-indulgent novels, Wolfe expends enormous energy animating clichés, blaming the stereotypes he invented for being so stereotypical; a superman lording it over the straw people he is knocking down. His fourth novel Back to Blood is even more bloated with excess than the society it seeks to lampoon, its plot as unreal as the marionettes jerkily waving their arms around in it, screeching Punch-and-Judy imprecations at each other.
Nestor Camacho is a Cuban-American policeman who becomes a celebrity by pulling off a daring, preposterous rescue: a Cuban refugee is clinging to the top of a sailing boat’s mast in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, and Nestor climbs down the mast with the struggling refugee clamped between his legs (as one does). Instead of being celebrated for his heroism, Nestor finds himself ostracised by his tight-knit Cuban community for handing over the refugee to the authorities. Next, he unwittingly causes another scandal when his scuffle with a black drug dealer is put on YouTube and he is accused of racism.
Nestor finds an ally in Miami Herald reporter John Smith, who attended prep school and Yale and always wears pressed trousers. That is all we need to know, evidently, because John Smith is not a person, but a Wasp personified. All Wolfe’s characters are similarly gestural: a Cuban mayor, an African-American police chief, one cop named Nestor and another named Hector, and a Russian oligarch called Sergei Korolyov, who has donated $70m of masterpieces to the Miami Art Museum that turn out to be forgeries.
Meanwhile Nestor’s ex-girlfriend, the impossibly beautiful Magdalena, has become the mistress of a social-climbing, sex-addicted psychiatrist, who provides her with an entrée to the pretentious, pornographic Miami art scene. Wolfe brings his plot strands together by putting Magdalena and Korolyov in bed, at which point Magdalena wakes “in a hypnopompic state” to feel Sergei’s hand as “it slid up her mons pubis and her abdomen and began dwelling upon the nipple of her left breast”. A few sentences later, Sergei’s body “impinged upon hers” – by which point I was in something of a hypnopompic state myself.
If Wolfe’s narrator is prone to such Latinate pomposity, his characters suffer from a fatal combination of logorrhea and aphasia: they make an unholy din, but words constantly fail them. No one speaks in this novel: they shout in capital letters, honking and squealing and shrieking. It’s Miami as a menagerie, Florida as an italic state. Wrestling with the drug dealer, Nestor says: “Sarge … unhh … tell Hector to get me some uhhh wrist ties … I uhhh … I don’t uhh believe uhh this uhhh uhhh uhhh uhhh bastard will keep his word.”
The psychiatrist Magdalena works for cannot speak without a hyena-laugh: “AahhhHAHHHHock hock hock you should’ve heardddahhhock hock hock, MauriceeeegghehehehahhhHAHAaghhhock hock hock … ‘I’m so sorRRAHAHAHAhhry!’ He’s so sorRRAHahahAAAHhhhry! I thought you were gonna shed some tears for himaahhhHAHAHAHAHHock hock hock hock!’”
The novel runs to 700 pages not because Wolfe has anything much to say, but because of these babbling eruptions of sheer noise, and because he can’t resist repeating his hilarious jokes. Foreigners speak in comedy accents, helpfully translated: “‘That is true,’ said Sergei. Zat ees drue,” or “We een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Magdalena, an intelligent Cuban-American with a nursing degree, has never heard of Cy Twombly or Chagall. Noted. Then she doesn’t “know what cutting-edge meant, either, although she could sort of guess … And what did iconic mean? She hadn’t the faintest idea.”
I know how she feels: not only does Wolfe not trust us to bear in mind that Magdalena is unversed in high culture (although the idea that she finds “cutting-edge” an abstruse term is ludicrous), he nudges us when Nestor reappears: “Nestor Camacho – remember him? – was evaporating, disintegrating, coming apart…” So is this novel, blown to pieces by the exploding shrapnel of Wolfe’s style.
Back to Blood is as fraudulent as the forged paintings at the centre of its plot, falling victim to the social diseases it pretends to diagnose: gigantism, self-indulgence, superficiality masking as profundity, a hyperactive, hyperbolic acquisitiveness and an endless taste for the crudely obvious. If this cult of celebrity is what passes for literature today, the joke is on us. When a character is dumbfounded, Wolfe informs us that this observation was “very much including the word’s literal meaning: speechless”. All I can say is that Back to Blood also left me dumbfounded, very much including the word’s literal meaning.
Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia