Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe

Review published on January 8, 2014.Reviewed by Erin Britton

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Nestor Camacho is a Cuban-American cop whose greatest act triggers his worst nightmare when he is sent out onto Biscayne Bay to rescue a would-be immigrant who is in great danger of drowning while making for the Miami shoreline. Nestor manages to affect a rescue – an act of heroism that is broadcast on live TV no less – but, once plucked from the water, the unfortunate illegal alien is arrested and later deported back to Cuba. While Nestor is lauded for his bravery by some, the unintended consequences of his rescue lead to his being shunned by his family and the wider community. To top things off, his girlfriend Magdalena leaves him for her sleazy psychiatrist boss, although this is less due to moral objections and more to do with a passion for social climbing.

While already persona no grata in the Cuban community, a subsequent accusation of brutality against an African American suspect causes Nestor to be vilified by pretty much everyone else in Miami too and so, in an attempt to restore his reputation, Nestor becomes embroiled in an investigation into the connection between reclusive Russian realist (try saying that three times quickly) artist Igor Drukovich and Sergei Korolyov, billionaire oligarch and current society darling. Having lost his prestigious harbour patrol job, Nestor is forced to team up with reporter John Smith on a trail through the seedy dens, pretentious art galleries and glitzy high spots of Miami in search of the truth.

Back to Blood is another massive, sprawling novel from Tom Wolfe with Miami providing the ideal canvas for him to portray his signature cast of disparate characters as well as his set pieces of action. Wolfe uses the social life and criminal investigations of Nestor Camacho to shine a light on the racial tensions and social pretentions that he feels are plaguing America and he does so with typical wit and vigour. Nestor is a good cop trying to do the right thing but is all too quickly vilified by his friends and neighbours and too easily chewed-up and spat out by the media. He’s a sympathetic and engaging character and makes an excellent guide through dark side and bright lights of Miami.

Unfortunately, while Nestor is generally a well-rounded and thoroughly developed character, Wolfe’s desire to use Back to Blood to completely cover/satirise the whole of Miami society means that other characters are far less developed and some incidents are discussed so fleetingly as to make them seem rather superfluous. Wolfe’s attempts to tackle all of the big, news-worthy issues – race, class, wealth, drugs, prostitution, gangs, etc – currently facing America in one novel result in his not being able to adequately address the cause(s) and effect(s) of them on society and so quite often related set pieces (drug busts, difficult arrests, orgies at posh regattas, etc) fall a bit flat. It sometimes seems like Wolfe has set out only to shock rather than to expose reality and force an examination of why modern life is the way it is.

Back to Blood is definitely a flawed novel but its 700+ pages still absolutely fly by as ripples of sleaze, corruption and danger flow out across Miami from Nestor’s original act of heroism at the harbour. It has been suggested that Wolfe is excessively fond of punctuation and onomatopoeia but that seems an unfair criticism; Wolfe is stylistically great even when he forgets to follow through with his plots. Back to Blood features a great many lively and intriguing characters – a fair few who would have been worthy of more consideration – and almost succeeds at exposing the highs and lows of Miami in the same way that Bonfire of the Vanities did those of New York. It might not be vintage Wolfe, but Back to Blood is still certainly worth a read.

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