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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Back to Blood’

- - Friday, October 26, 2012

BACK TO BLOOD
By Tom Wolfe
Little Brown and Co., $30, 704 pages

Tom Wolfe is back -- back with a new novel, of course, but also back with the big characters, the loud prose and the skewering of the cultural elite that have been the touchstones of his work. What he is not back with is some new object of stinging satire. "Radical Chic" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" were such pleasures to read because no one at the time was saying what Mr. Wolfe was saying and how he was saying it. "Back to Blood," unfortunately, is the Wolfe novel we've all read before.

The book is set in Miami and follows the naive, scandal-prone Nestor Camacho, who manages to incite both Cubans and blacks with his law enforcement heroics, and a young Yale-educated reporter, John Smith, who hopes to break an art fraud story, which is at the center of the plot. Circumstance brings Camacho and Smith together as they pursue leads at Miami's Art Basel, strip clubs and an assisted-living center. The prose clips along, as it always does with Mr. Wolfe, as chest-thumping character after chest-thumping character experiences some great or minor triumph, only to self-destruct or be burned by some unexpected circumstance or small-time Joe.

A common criticism of Mr. Wolfe -- despite his practice of using firsthand observations and extensive research in his work -- is that his characters are too big, too unreal. Compared to the minutia-obsessed characters of contemporary realism, there's no doubt that the Charlie Crockers of Mr. Wolfe's novels are peacocks in a henhouse. In "Back to Blood," for example, we have a Russian oligarch named Sergei Korolyov, who is rich, handsome, possessed with European charm and a cold, murderous soul, and Dr. Norman Lewis, a high-flying solipsistic pornography psychiatrist whose greatest fear is to be ignored.

For Mr. Wolfe, making his characters larger than life is a way of making their virtues and vices more evident and, therefore, more "real." There's a telling scene in "Back to Blood" in which Korolyov is duped into taking part in a reality television show featuring a fellow oligarch, Boris Feodorovich Flebetnikov. Asked to read a few opening lines, Korolyov complains: "This is a reality show, I thought. And I speak lines by a writer? I think the English term for that is 'a play.'" The director, Sidney Munch, who no doubt is asked this sort of thing every episode, responds: "As I'm sure you can imagine, on television you have to create a hyper-reality before it will come across to the viewer as play reality."

There's a fair amount of "hyper-reality" in "Back to Blood" but with better lines than one finds in reality television and with the goal, as with all Wolfe novels, of chronicling the excesses of our culture for our entertainment and our moral edification. A contemporary art critic tells one of the characters about "No Hands art and De-skilled art." "No cutting-edge artist," she continues, "touches materials anymore." A self-absorbed, politically correct newspaper editor is shown to care far less about truth than about how others view him. And on multiple occasions, Mr. Wolfe mocks the childish dress of American males. Nothing bothers him more, it seems, than an untucked shirt and tennis shoes.

But these moments of absurdity are simply too predictable, especially from Mr. Wolfe, who has made fun of such pretension and infantilism many times before. If there's one thing he has taught us, it is that conceptual art is largely a scam and the wealthy liberal elite are no more altruistic than their conservative counterparts. While the novel does have something to say about masculinity or race, these themes are buried by the forward push of the plot.

And then there's Mr. Wolfe's love of onomatopoeia. In all of his novels, there are always a hmmmmmh here, a shhhhhhhh there or an occasional Whhhhhhhaaaatttt?!, but "Back to Blood" is positively clanging with SMACKs, clop-groan-squeaks, haw, haw, haws, crackles and hock, hock, hocks. It lightens up toward the end, but it is more than a little distracting in the first half of the work.

Wolfe aficionados may be pleased with the book, and there's no doubt that Mr. Wolfe is a master of pace, but it is mostly a victory-lap performance -- one that is perhaps well-deserved from one of our most daring novelists.

• Micah Mattix lives in Houston. He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.