A conflicted cop is the centrepiece of Tom Wolfe’s examination of racial tension
Back to Blood
by Tom Wolfe
Jonathan Cape, 704pp, £20
With his latest door-stopping fiction, Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe returns with a thunderous thwack, fizzing outrageously at the age of 81 with a slipstreamed comet of a novel portending racial conflagration, pinpointing Miami as his target, tracking the ley lines of social conflict, political flux, and the noise – not just of the cultural stir-fry of a city bubbling over with unrest, but also the simmering of change all over America, seeping due north.
TC Boyle, in his masterly book The Tortilla Curtain, drew timely attention to the tidal arrival of Mexican immigration.
Here Wolfe, with penetrating visceral intent, dissects the twitching, malfunctioning body of a society bound for crisis, producing a novel that’s, paradoxically, much less an epitaph than a charter for survival, hope being embodied in the outlooks and dispositions of its lead characters: Nestor Camacho, a 25-year-old city cop, and his girlfriend Magdalena Otaro, one year younger, a nurse-assistant to psychiatrist, Norman Lewis, a porn-addiction specialist.
Lewis’s intention is to keep his patients in hock – both to their vices and to his treatments. Only millionaires need apply. Magdalena at first seems in thrall to Lewis’s minor TV-celebrity, riding his coattails into Miami’s new-money society, ditching Nestor. If Lewis is characterised by lechery, greed and villainy, Magdalena – outrageously beautiful and as sexually alluring and provocative as Wolfe’s hot prose can make her – is the novel’s besmirched, fallen angel, set to fall further before salvation.
Nestor meanwhile, at least in career terms, is in the ascendant, and first encountered in Biscayne Bay boarding a speedboat to apprehend an illegal immigrant, a Cuban, plucking the miscreant from a mast-top in a gymnastic feat of muscle power caught on camera and blazoned thereafter across the Miami Herald’s front page. To some in the city – the Haitians, the Afro-Americans and the WASPs (an endangered, self-important coterie) – Nestor is instantly a hero. But, to his family, part of the 50 per cent of the city’s population who are Cuban, he is a traitor, an instant outcast, a source of shame. It is this sense of entrenched identities that bequeaths the novel its title, and its tensions.
Into this mix comes a slew of filthy-rich Russian oligarchs, chief among them the deadly handsome Sergei Korolyov, who gifts the city’s art museum a fabulous collection of early 20th century masterworks. In some circles rumour is rife that these may be tax-deductible fakes, painted clandestinely and locally.
John Smith, the Herald reporter who first propelled Nestor into celebrity, enlists him in pursuit of the art scandal’s truth – made possible by Nestor’s suspension from duty after a drugs bust in which our hero is misrepresented on YouTube as a racist.
As storylines twist and gradually tighten, the city’s interracial politics become clearer – epitomised by the stand-off between the conscience-torn black police chief, one of Wolfe’s more conflicted characters, and the cutthroat Cuban mayor.
Meanwhile, Magdalena’s love life (she leaps like a flea from Lewis’s bed sheets into the silky nest of Korolyov) is paralleled by Nestor’s and Smith’s ambition to crack the art-con, all of which makes for colourful reading.
In any 700-page novel, occasional flatness of pace and narrative (something Wolfe has succumbed to in the past) tends to sneak in. Here, very rarely – except in three of the closing sections, where superfluity of narrative takes the form of repetition – does the book suffer even a hiccup.
Wolfe’s prose is restless, inventive, scurrilous, mocking and humorous. He has plenty to say about morals and mores, and much to unload concerning the shallow, pretentious chicanery of the art world, bogus psychiatry, the addiction to social climbing (plumbing depths instead of heights). It takes the police chief, at last, to utter the words “right” and “wrong”, thus sending shockwaves across a roomful of self-serving egos, to derail the rot.
Though it revels in exposé, and detail, reading like fly-on-the-wall reportage at times, the pictures in Back to Blood are larger than life, with zap! pow! dialogue and attitudes to match. As a now-defunct national Sunday newspaper used to proclaim: All Human Life is Here! Wolfe parades human life unrelentingly and majestically in full colour, his throttle twisted to the limit. It’s even better than his great hit The Bonfire of the Vanities. Unmissable stuff.
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