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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
History, Science & Current Affairs
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
As a police launch speeds across Miami's Biscayne Bay - with officer Nestor Camacho on board - Tom Wolfe is off and running. Into the feverous landscape of the city, he introduces the Cuban mayor, the black police chief, a wanna-go-muckraking young journalist and his Yale-marinated editor; an Anglo sex-addiction psychiatrist and his Latina nurse by day, loin lock by night - until lately, the love of Nestor's life; a refined, and oh-so-light-skinned young woman from Haiti and her Creole-spouting, black-gang-banger-stylin' little brother; a billionaire porn addict, crack dealers in the 'hoods, "de-skilled" conceptual artists at the Miami Art Basel Fair, "spectators" at the annual Biscayne Bay regatta looking only for that night's orgy, yenta-heavy ex-New Yorkers at an "Active Adult" condo, and a nest of shady Russians.
Based on the same sort of detailed, on-scene, high-energy reporting that powered Tom Wolfe's previous bestselling novels, Back to Blood is another brilliant, spot-on, scrupulous, and often hilarious reckoning with our times.
Back to Blood
The Sergeant was easing back on the throttle. The SMACKs became less violent and less frequent as they closed in on the huge white sailboat. They were approaching it from the rear.
Officer Lonnie Kite leaned down over the instrument panel and began looking upward. "Jesus Christ, Sarge, those mastsI never saw masts that high in my life. They're tall as the fucking bridge, and the fucking bridge has a mean water level clearance of eighty-fucking-two feet!"
Busy easing the Safe Boat in alongside the sailboat, the Sergeant didn't so much as glance up. "That's a schooner, Lonnie. You heard a the 'tall ships'?"
"Yeah I think so, Sarge. I guess so."
"They built 'em for speed, back in the nineteenth century. That's why they got masts that tall. That way you get more sail area. Back in the day they used to race out to shipwrecks or incoming cargo ships or whatever to get to the booty sooner. I bet those masts are tall as the boat's long."
"How do you know about all that, about schooners, Sarge? I never seen one around here. Not one."
"I pay attention"
"in class," said Lonnie Kite. "Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Sarge." He pointed upward. "I'll be damned. There's the guy! The man on the mast! Up on top of the forward mast! I thought it was a clump a dirty laundry or canvas or something. Look at 'im! He's up as high as the tontos on the bridge! And, man, looks like they're yelling back and forth "
Nestor couldn't see any of it, and none of them could hear what was going on, since the Safe Boat cockpit was soundproof.
The Sergeant had the boat throttled way down in order to sidle up against the schooner. They came to a stop just inches away. "Lonnie," said the Sergeant, "you take the wheel." When he rose from his seat, he looked at Nestor as if he had forgotten he existed. "Okay, Camacho, do something useful. Open the fucking hatch."
Nestor looked at the Sergeant with abject fear. Inside his skull he said a prayer. ::::::Please, Almighty God, I beseech thee. Don't let me fuck up.::::::
The "hatch" was a soundproof double-paned sliding door on the side of the shack that opened onto the deck. Nestor's entire universe suddenly contracted into that door and the Olympics-level test of opening it with maximum strength, maximum speedwhile maintaining maximum control now! Immediately! ::::::Please, Almighty God, I beseech theehere goes::::::
He did it! He did it! With the fluid power of a tiger he did it! Did what? Slid it! Slid a sliding door open! Without fucking up!
Outsideall was uproar. The noise came crashing into the sacrosoundless cockpit, the noise and the heat. Christ, it was hot out here on the deck! Scorching! Enervating! It beat you down. It took the wind kicking up the bay to make it bearable. The wind was strong enough to create its own whistling sound and SLAP the hull of the schooner with swells and FLAP the huge sails, two masts' full of themFLAP them until they blew up into clouds of an unnatural white brillianceMiami summer sun! Nestor glanced up toward that ball of fireburning itself upand even with his supreme darkest sunglasses he didn't try that againlooking up into that hellish heat lamp, which was the entire sky. But that was nothing compared to the roiling SURF of human voices. Cries! Exhortations! Imprecations! Ululations! Supplications! Boos! A great bellowing and gnashing of teeth a mile from shore out in the middle of Biscayne Bay!
The Sergeant emerged from the shack without the slightest flick of the eye toward Nestor. But as he disembarked, he made a jerking signal with his hand down by his hip indicating that Nestor should follow him. Follow him? Nestor followed him like a dog.
Excerpted from Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I have been reading Tom Wolfe for decades, from non-fiction work such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, through A Man in Full to this, his latest, Back to Blood. The manic rhythms and hip verbosity of his writing are instantly recognizable even to the point of repeating various tropes. His propensity for naming and counting the musculature of male characters as well as the delights of female bodies shows up in every book. This book was no different. Though I have acquired a taste for his methods, many were the times I threw down Back to Blood and vowed not to pick it up again. For instance, he inserts a cartoon-like soundtrack into his prose:
"SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence on the roof SMACK..."
This goes on for 10 pages in the first chapter. Annoying! I was weary of the same old stuff and wondered if Wolfe hadn't passed his prime. I worried that his use of sexual language went outside the realm of what BookBrowse could recommend to its readers.
And yet I picked the book back up each time I thought I was done with it. Why?
Back to Blood centers on Nestor Camacho, a 25-year old, second generation Cuban clawing his way up in the Miami police force. After an utterly manic and heroic feat, during which he saves a Cuban refugee only to have the poor fellow sent back to Cuba, not only does Nestor lose the respect of the Cuban population for not being able to save the refugee from deportation, but his girlfriend leaves him too. All in one day. Magdalena doesn't dump Nestor for betraying their people though. She has moved in with her boss, a psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, including one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Miami. Magdalena is lusting after the luxury of sleek automobiles, fancy parties and the attention her voluptuous Latina beauty elicits. A third character, John Smith, is an ambitious young white reporter with a Yale degree and his journalist idealism intact. John is the reporter who is sent to interview Comacho after his heroic feat.
Miami is a city where African Americans, Cubans, and various other Latinos outnumber Caucasians. In Wolfe's Miami, this Latino and African-American majority lives in a continuous state of mocking the white population while, at the same time, wanting what they have. Miami's immigrant base supports an apex of wealthy whites who, most recently, have erected an art museum, funded by contributions and filled with what are rumored to be copies of famous, priceless paintings. Nestor Camacho and John Smith form an alliance as they sleuth their way through Russian oligarchs and gangsters to get to the truth about this art scandal. Will their rash and youthful bravado bring down the corrupt establishment? Or will money, privilege, white skin and crime prevail?
This is why I returned, again and again, to Back to Blood. This is why I picked the book back up, opened to the page where I had left off, and continued to read. Yes, the novel is about immigration and sex, Miami and sex, art crime and sex, city politics and sex... oh, and also manhood...and sex. But it was the plot that drew me back; my curiosity as to where Tom Wolfe was going with this story and what would happen to the characters, especially Nestor Camacho, Magdalena, and John Smith. They represent the new blood of our times; the generation willing to move beyond race and create the next version of their city. We see Miami through their eyes, even if they too often sound like extensions of the author rather than fleshed out characters. Critics abound who complain that Wolfe does not begin to measure up to the best literary authors. To me that would be like complaining that Tom Clancy doesn't write good romance. Wolfe freely admits to writing "realism" and does it so well that some readers take him much too seriously, missing the fact that he is mostly making fun of us.
Wolfe tells a great story and if rumors about the size of his advance for Back to Blood are remotely true, he doesn't write for the critics. He writes to give his readers a good, rollicking time. And he does.
Reviewed by Judy Krueger
Rated of 5
So: Irritating at times, but I have read all of his novels and have always found them well worth the trouble. Definitely a lot of bang for your buck. Being from Florida, found it mostly believable. I pre-ordered this book and read it non-stop. If you have not read his work; start with Bonfires or Man in Full.
Tom Wolfe was born on March 2, 1931 in Richmond, VA. He was editor of his high school newspaper and sports editor of his college newspaper. His college professor of American Studies, Marshall Fishwick, stressed looking at the entirety of a culture including its profane aspects. Wolfe's books show how much he took this to heart.
After taking a doctorate in American Studies at Yale, he began his working life as a reporter, working for both The Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune. One of his first feature articles appeared in Esquire magazine. Covering the hot rod and custom car culture of southern California, it was included in and became the title of his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Its appearance in 1965 established Wolfe as a leading writer in what was called the New Journalism. Along with Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and others, he combined straight reporting with literary techniques, creating a style which is now known as creative non-fiction, found in books covering science, history, memoir, biography and current events.
Some of Wolfe's now signature elements already appeared in "Kandy- Kolored". It was originally titled "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," making it Wolfe's first writing to include sound effects. His fascination with the female form was also evident: "Then you notice that all the girls are dressed exactly alike. They have bouffant hairdos - all of them - and slacks that are, well, skin-tight does not get the idea across; it's more the conformation than how tight the slacks are. It's as if some lecherous old tailor with a gluteus-maximus fixation designed them, striation by striation."
Wolfe published 11 volumes of non-fiction between 1965 and 1982, possibly the most well known being The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968. Though he claims never to have ingested LSD, he captured the California psychedelic scene, the escapades of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, their Day-Glo bus and Acid Tests, as well as the response of the "straight" world to such goings-on. Kesey's phrase, "Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus," became common currency among hippies. "The current fantasy" is still used amongst my friends to describe what is going on in the moment. The book itself is evidence that Wolfe had begun to hit his stride with a dense, manic style of maximum reportage.
By the time he began writing fiction, Wolfe was practically a story generating machine. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, his highly acclaimed and bestselling novel of 1987, he unveiled the magic formula: The Scene - New York City. The Conflict - nouveau riche junk bond salesman vs criminals of all skin colors and nationalities from the slums. The Themes - ambition, social class, racism, politics, and greed. The Characters - a WASP, a Jew, a journalist, and a Black Activist Reverend. The Women - over-dieted, over exercised, social "Xrays" or voluptuous, sexy broads. This formula, and these themes, would appear over and over again in Wolfe's work.
In 1989, two years after the publication of his first novel, Tom Wolfe's essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" was published in Harper's Magazine. In it he made an impassioned plea for a return to the realistic novel, defined as fiction that demonstrates the influence of society on the personal life of the individual. His novels are examples of the realistic novel as he sees it, moving through four decades of American life.
Check out a New York Times review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Photo of Tom Wolfe courtesy of Mark Seliger/AP
By Judy Krueger
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