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Review: Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

The dandy novelist's whizbang writing style hasn't diminished, but his messages get obscured by misanthropy

By Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown and Company, $30.

Where Tom Wolfe’s debut novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, delivered a bleak but realistic portrait of class divide and race relations in 1980s NYC, his new Back to Blood finds the 78-year-old dandy turning his jaundiced eye on 21st-century Miami and its bubbling ethnic cauldron of whites, Haitians, African-Americans and Cubans.

The story begins conventionally enough, as good-natured Cuban-American cop Nestor Camacho rescues an illegal alien stranded atop the mast of a ship seeking asylum in the U.S. With the media’s help, this incident causes an uproar in Miami’s Cuban community. Worse for Camacho, his hot girlfriend, Magdalena, leaves him for a publicity-seeking Caucasian psychiatrist (who oversees the care of a porn-addicted art mogul). From there, the reader is plunged into a sleazy Miami demimonde that broadly symbolizes the fall of America: A large cast of crack dealers, strippers, newspaper editors, yacht-hopping exhibitionists and Russian oligarchs, with help from reality TV and YouTube videos, all contribute to the devolution of man back into ape.

Surprisingly, Wolfe’s flashy, whizbang writing style hasn’t diminished over the years. His pesky, rambunctious sentences still shoot across the page in chaotic bursts, doubtlessly striking fear into the hearts of quaking copy editors. Unfortunately, central characters Nestor and Magdalena are like dead leaves blown helplessly from one bad situation to another by the author’s hurricane-force omniscience. While Wolfe does improve on his old, Bonfire-era racial stereotypes, any coherent statements about contemporary race relations get obscured by knee-jerk misanthropy and predictable pop-cultural spoofs. The profoundly cynical Wolfe still sees contemporary urban life as little more than a “trough of mortal error” in which flawed humans of all races and creeds will always be equal in their ability to do wrong.

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