Bloodbath! Tom Wolfe mauled for new novel Back to Blood

Oct 26, 2012

The writer who ruled the world after Bonfire of the Vanities gets damning reviews for his latest novel

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HE MAY BE the founder of New Journalism and a master of social satire but American literary critics have slammed Tom Wolfe's fourth novel, the Miami-set Back to Blood, expressing disappointment at the glib plot, "unpleasant cardboard characters" and chaotic, contrived writing.

Panned variously as "preposterous", "contrived" and "utterly unbelievable", the 722-page novel tackles the disparate nature of modern Miami, a melting pot of young, ambitious Cuban Americans, image-obsessed Wasps basking in the spotlight of celebrity and bawdy Russian oligarchs who control the city's multi-million dollar art scene.

After his 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons was similarly savaged for its heavy-handed moralising and sensationalised portrayal of college life, fans hoped Back to Blood would be a return to form for Wolfe, 81, who has attempted to excavate the world of Miami in much the same way he did New York in his much-lauded first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities.

But Back to Blood is no Bonfire, says USA Today's Deirdre Donahue, who pointed out that although Wolfe has "never written realistic fiction", in his previous novels you "believed the characters could exist and, more importantly, you cared about their fates".

Esquire's Benjamin Alsup agreed, saying there are "no characters in Back to Blood, only caricatures, cartoonish stereotypes that are little more than reflections of their sociocultural contexts".

It's like a "camp skit that drags on till long after the fire has burned out", moans The Washington Post, despairing that Wolfe's "essentialist statements – about the way Cubans are, the way blacks are, even the way men and women are – reduce everyone to not-very-interesting types".

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times was not much kinder, comparing its "predictable set-pieces" to the same sort of "smarmy voyeurism that weighed down I Am Charlotte Simmons", though she did commend the portrayal of Wolfe's two main characters: Nestor Camacho, a macho Cuban-American cop, and his ambitious former sweetheart, Magdelena.

"[Wolfe] portrays them with genuine sympathy, using their earnest idealism as a prism by which to view the pretensions, social climbing and Machiavellian manipulation that burbles all around them".

While many critics have deplored the book's peculiarly slow pace, Thomas Mallon in the New York Times Sunday Book Review praised Wolfe's ability to "texture the novel's terrain", and his ability to unfold the story with "a lot of leisure and recap".

Littered with Wolfe's trademark cacophonous punctuation, Back to Blood will occasionally cause the reader to "balk at a clumsy amalgamation", says Mallon. "I doubt Nestor would know the word ‘aubergine' — or think of a woman's ‘loamy loins'."

Esquire, Woolf's publishing birthplace, lamented that the novel lacks the kind of "deep reporting that Wolfe prides himself on. "I don't think the world that Wolfe depicts exists anywhere," says Alsup. "The guy needs to get out more."

  • Back to Blood is published in the UK by Random House

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