BACK TO BLOOD, by Tom Wolfe. Random House, 353pp, $37.99.

Greed, politics, racism, media, sex: Tom Wolfe has stirred these ingredients before, most notably in his 1987 satire Bonfire of the Vanities. The years have passed, and the scene has shifted from New York to Miami, but the mix is as heady as ever.

As in the earlier novel, a small incident triggers the ensuing action. A police officer, Cuban Nestor Camacho, retrieves a stowaway from the top of the mast of a luxury yacht. In doing so, he becomes at once a hero – he ascends by means of a rope, using only his arms – and a villain. The man clinging to the mast is a would-be immigrant, a Cuban refugee, only metres from his goal when plucked from the mast, and Nestor is vilified by his family and the Miami Cuban community as a traitor. His media status is complicated further in a subsequent raid on a crack-house: Nestor’s and his sergeant’s insults to a black drug-dealer are caught on camera and posted immediately to YouTube. The underlying theme is blood: that, in extremity, a person’s fundamental allegiance is racial.

Nestor’s fall from grace is deftly entwined (allowing for the occasional plot contrivance) with other characters’ narratives: Russian billionaires who compete with each other to buy worthless conceptual art; a media-savvy sex-addiction psychiatrist who is contemptuous of his clients and yet enthralled by their glamour and wealth; an ambitious journalist who has stumbled on the biggest story of his career…

Wolfe vividly evokes the cauldron of Miami: the various tensions are played out in the relentless heat that bounces off the water, the white stucco walls and the sidewalks. In fact everything is a bit relentless, not least Wolfe’s maximalist prose style: every page is replete with exclamation marks, italics, ellipses, and an idiosyncratic typographical signalling of interior monologue that I hope doesn’t become widely accepted. Wolfe’s prose has lots of distinctive bells and whistles, yet he is that rare thing, a traditional novelist, documenting, dramatizing and analysing the contemporary scene in ways that will be familiar to readers of Dickens, George Eliot and, most strikingly, Thackeray.

The crucial difference is depth. Wolfe is enamoured of surfaces, as the best satirists are, but we don’t get a sense of the life that courses beneath these surfaces. This novel entertainingly parades the various symptoms of America’s manifold social illnesses, but its default position is derision. Not that its targets aren’t ripe for derision – but is that enough? Wolfe provides much, but I found myself wanting more.



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