Everyone’s a little bit racist in Tom Wolfe’s Back To Blood, a Bonfire Of The Vanities with boats, set in a seething but stereotyped Miami. The mistakes of a rookie cop are meant to bring the city to a boil, but its inhabitants prove just as happy to spar over much more lukewarm fare. Case in point: the uneasy WASP who gives the book its title after a Cuban woman steals his wife’s parking space at a fancy restaurant.
The last righteous man in this Sodom is Cuban officer Nestor Camacho, whose talent for police work is overshadowed by an unlucky tendency to draw attention to himself. His rescue of a shipwrecked illegal immigrant in Biscayne Bay makes him a local news star, but a pariah among his relatives in Hialeah; eventually, relieved of duty after a misleading yet damning viral video, he decides to expose the Russian billionaire who just endowed the city’s new art museum. Well-intentioned as Nestor is, his lightning-rod status jeopardizes the coziness between the city’s Cuban mayor and the black police chief, a relationship Wolfe regrettably spends little time on because it isn’t as entertaining as taking hits at spinning, reality TV and Pitbull.
Back To Blood appropriates the device powering Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons in which the titular naïf is shocked—shocked!—to discover the depravity of modern college life, before succumbing to its excesses herself. Several innocents in Back To Blood speak the author’s disapproval: a social-climbing nurse whose new boyfriend takes her to an outdoor orgy; cub reporter John Smith, a former Yalie who wears a blazer to a strip club. The commentary the author forces through these credulous narrators as the scales fall from their eyes feels piped-in and inauthentic; whether Wolfe truly feels pity for these innocents or if it’s just some sort of nostalgie de la boue, using his characters as fodder for this destructive machine undermines their purpose in the story in the first place.
Their gullibility is cartoonish even among the vodka-drinking Russians, décolletage-baring Cubans, and Yiddish-dropping ex-New Yorker retirees they encounter on the way to knowledge. Meanwhile, Back To Blood’s needless plot clogs with wordy momentum-stoppers like “So the Chief took a look at YouTube. In fact, he watched it 3 times.” Wolfe has always been high-bombast, but he loses any sense of a message; even if there’s no malice in the way he plunges after the rainbow of human foibles, it isn’t all that fun, either.