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Tom Wolfe skims the surfaces of 'Back to Blood'

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Back to Blood
A Novel

Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown: 704 pp., $30


About a quarter of the way through Tom Wolfe's new novel, "Back to Blood," pornography addiction specialist Dr. Norman Lewis waits with his nurse (and mistress) Magdelena Otero to be interviewed by a "60 Minutes" crew. Norman is delirious at the prospect of his star turn — so much so that he becomes a bit, er, overstimulated.

"'Now — while they're at the door!' " he grunts at Magdalena, who responds, " 'No, Norman! Are you crazy? … There's no time!'"

For Wolfe, the scene offers an opportunity to push the novel into absurdity: "'This is the time —' croaked Dr. Lewis. 'While they're — at — the — gate.'" And yet, as much as Wolfe means to highlight a larger social disintegration, his satire in "Back to Blood" feels a little thin. Throughout "Back to Blood," Wolfe uniformly writes down to his characters, treating them less as people than as reflections in a jaundiced eye.

Taking place in Miami, a city in which, as he notes, "everybody hates everybody," the book aspires to be a sweeping social novel in the style of "The Bonfire of the Vanities," but instead it unfolds as a portrait gallery of noxious personalities, sketched out in the broadest strokes.

There is Norman, the sex-addicted addiction therapist, and Magdalena, whose mix of sensuality and innocence is mitigated by her disastrous taste in men. There is Nestor Camacho, as close as "Back to Blood" has to a moral center, a Cuban cop who, incredibly, finds himself at the center of four high-profile cases in the space of a few months.

Add Sergei Korolyov, the Russian "oligarch" (read: mobster) who steals Magdalena from Norman; a Haitian college professor and his children; and a Cuban mayor and black police chief, and you begin to see what Wolfe is after: to represent the component parts of a city that is, in the mayor's words, "not a melting pot, because that's not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes," but rather a loose conglomeration of communities that like "all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds — Back to blood!"

This is the sort of material Wolfe used to eat for breakfast, back in his journalism days. His best work ("The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," "Radical Chic") is all about subcultures — Southern California car freaks, Northern California acidheads, guilt-ridden culture snobs — not as stereotypes but as societies with highly codified, often baroque, rules.

His first novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987), aspired to something similar, evoking New York as a multilayered landscape defined by the tension between those who have and those who will never have, a tension that brings the city to life.

But here's the thing: Despite his acumen as a reporter, Wolfe has never been a particularly good novelist. The plots he creates feel contrived in comparison to those he has discovered in the world. His last novel, "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (2004), is a case in point: a college satire that reads like a pastiche, written at a distance, disconnected from experience, lived or observed.

Also: The novels are too long, 600 or more pages, and wildly overwritten. "Back to Blood" clocks in at 704.

That might not be such a problem if "Back to Blood" were really the kind of social novel that Wolfe meant to write, a true tale of the city, as it were. His relentless use of stereotype, however — as well as his overbearing nastiness to his characters — keeps the narrative from ever fully coming to life.

The catalyst is Nestor, who, early in the novel, climbs a sailboat's mast to bring a Cuban refugee to safety, only to be vilified when it becomes apparent that the man will be sent back. Transferred to a different police unit, he finds himself at the center of another controversy when a cellphone video of him and a fellow Cuban officer arresting a black crack dealer ends up on YouTube, complete with racial epithets.

The idea is to highlight the conflict between blacks and Cubans, which is a theme throughout the novel. (Remember that mayor and police chief?) But the effect is to test the bounds of credibility, especially when Nestor draws the attention of a Miami Herald reporter named (really) John Smith, "a mere boy with perfect manners and perfect posture," who writes a pair of front page stories about the cop.

Although Smith and Nestor eventually team up to investigate a possible art forgery, the relationship between them — and, indeed, the way Wolfe portrays journalism, and especially newspaper journalism, in these days of waning influence — is among the least believable aspects of the novel, melodramatic and over the top. This may be the most shocking failure of "Back to Blood," given Wolfe's long experience as a journalist — although he hasn't worked in a newsroom for many years.

More to the point, the story of Smith and Nestor frames a bigger issue with the novel, since, unlike the plot line involving Norman and Magdalena (or, for that matter, a running riff on high-end art collectors and their habit of investing in work they don't understand, or even like), it's not played for satiric effect.

This is not to say it's subtle — nothing in the book is — just that here alone Wolfe seems to want to do more than merely make fun of his characters by exposing their self-deception and shallowness. Both Smith and Nestor are misunderstood, eager to bring the city together; they want to do good, in the most old-fashioned sense.

Yet in his way, Wolfe also mocks them, deriding the reporter for how he dresses and portraying Nestor as a peacock, obsessed with his physique. The focus on appearance is telling, for Wolfe is, as he has always been, fascinated by surfaces, by the way they reveal us, often in spite of ourselves.

Here again, we see the key to his reporting, the way he once used the idea of appearance to get at a more complex narrative. But with "Back to Blood," he has given us a novel composed almost entirely of surfaces, with very little substance underneath.

david.ulin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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