Here’s your disclaimer:
Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe is not a clean read. In some books you can turn an extra page or two to skip the problems. But in Wolfe’s latest bison-sized novel, the sex and the gutter language never let up. In Wolfe’s defense, he leans conservative. He plays the part of great observer in the sky, looking down on the decadence of modern America and declaring, “Do you see how ridiculous you look?”
Now, with that out of the way, Wolfe sets his latest tale in Miami, where “the heat lamp in the sky” bears down mercilessly on the teeming masses.
The most massive of these masses are the Cubans. They fill up the police force, the mayor’s office, the narrow streets of Hialeah where they huddle together in cramped “casitas” surrounded by concrete, which the housewives hose off every morning. The older generation retains fresh memories of their narrow escapes from a cruel regime. The younger generation longs to fit in to America, though the only America they know is one that eats pastelitos and drinks sugar-cane-sweet coffee.
From the streets of Hialeah, we meet Nestor Camacho, an eager young cop. Nestor would give just about anything if his americano sergeant would stop calling him “Nes-ter.” Also, could the guy please stop treating him like “some helpless six-year-old”?
One day while Nestor patrols the bay in a speed boat, a desperate man climbs the mast of a boat and refuses to come down. After Nestor and the sarge and a few thousand screaming Miamians examine the situation, the sarge asks Nestor, “You think you can climb that mast, Camacho? The guy don’t speak English. But you can talk to him.”
Nestor looks up the mast. He’d have to be crazy to try it. Then again, here’s his chance to shine in the sarge’s eyes.
Nestor becomes something of a Dudley Do-Right, pulling off daring feats with the muscles he hones by climbing ropes at the gym — without using his legs.
Sadly, Nestor’s heroics also prove the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Officer Camacho isn’t the only ambitious character in Wolfe’s novel. His girlfriend, Magdalena, wants nothing more than to get the heck out of Hialeah. Armed with a nursing degree, she hitches her star to a psychiatrist who specializes in treating porn addicts.
Then there are the blacks, who resent the overrunning of their city by these Spanish-speaking hordes. Miami’s Cuban mayor attempts to pacify them by hiring a black police chief, a powerful specimen of manhood who has mastered The Cop Look. Still it bites when all these officers named Hernandez and Garcia interfere with your drug business.
Then there are the Haitians, who try to pass themselves off as French instead of “Neg.”
Add in the Russians. Now, aren’t Russians always into mischief? If they aren’t hacking elections outside of Wolfe’s story, they are selling contraband something or other inside it.
This isn’t Wolfe’s best book. He’s a big name in literature. By now, the problem may be that publishers print up whatever he drops on their desk. Couldn’t they get anybody to tell him, “Tom, my boy, do we really need to hang around so long in the sex-soaked regatta scene? And that chapter in the strip club — that was rather well-researched, don’t you think? And I know you looked real hard for a place to slot it into your story, but our Kindle date shows a big reader drop-off somewhere in those pages . . .”
So, consider yourself warned. There’s some funny parts, some boring parts, some swimming-through-the-water-treatment-plant parts.
Actually, a lot of those.