Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tom Wolfe's 'Back to Blood' ... 'Miami deserves a better novel'

I've read quite a few books in my life. But, I've never read anything by Tom Wolfe.

I know Wolfe has written a book called "Bonfire of the Vanities" and that he wears white suits. And that's about it, I think.

But, in the past two weeks I've heard more and read more about Wolfe and his work than I have in the past 40 years.

And that's because (in case you haven't heard) he has a new book out that's set in Miami. It's called "Back to Blood."

And because Tom Wolfe is Tom Wolfe, there's a lot of buzz surrounding this volume. There's this, for instance: the book is 700 pages long. Wolfe received a $7 million advance to write it. That works out to $10,000 a page.

At one point in the book, the fictional mayor of Miami tells his police chief, “[I]f you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

(I wonder if someone actually said that to Wolfe while he was doing research for the book or if that's the conclusion he reached after spending some time perusing the reader comments section of our local paper's website.)

I hadn't planned to write anything about Wolfe's book. But all that changed when I heard him talk about it on WLRN today.

Listen (starting at 2:10) as Wolfe recounts how he came up with the idea of doing a book set in Miami:
Then I heard about Florida. The first thing that caught my ear is that Miami is the only city — the only one I can find — in which people from a foreign country with a different language and a different culture have taken over a metropolitan area politically at the voting machine in slightly over one generation. Of course that's the Cubans.

My first thought on hearing that was: Wow! Cubans have taken over Miami? When did that happen? For this he got $7 million?

Listen, also, at the 6:00 mark of the interview as Wolfe - sounding a bit confused - tries to explain what he calls the "dry-foot, wet-foot" Cuban immigration policy. In a somewhat astounding revelation, Wolfe actually admits he has no idea when or how the policy came to be!

There's no question that Wolfe is an American literary giant. He founded a style of writing called "New Journalism." But some of the reviews of "Back to Blood" cut him down to size.

Here are the last few paragraphs of a review of the book that appeared on NPR's website.
The book is a 700-page, headlong and disorienting rush of events and characters: the publicity-hungry psychiatrist who treats wealthy porn addicts, a near-orgy at a Columbus Day regatta and a reality show for Masters of the Universe gone bust, among a torrent of other plot points.

It is much too much.

The combined effect is not some panoramic view of Miami's present or a vision of the future of American cities. Instead, it feels like Wolfe pummels readers with image after insight after interior monologue to pound them into submission.

No más, already. Tom Wolfe deserves a better editor. And Miami deserves a better novel.
I won't be buying "Back to Blood." I have better uses for the $30 this book costs.

However, I'm sure many in Miami will gladly pony up the money for the book.

And Wolfe will probably be speaking to a standing-room-only crowd when he appears at the Miami Book Fair on Nov. 11. Most in the crowd will probably be there, not because they love Wolfe's work, but because they'll be able to tell their friends they saw Tom Wolfe. 

If  you're not one of those people, but you still want to read about Miami, now might be a good time to get reacquainted with one of Carl Hiaasen's  novels or Edna Buchanan's crime classic, "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face."

YouTube: Trailer for the documentary, "Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood"

Miami Herald: Tom Wolfe’s ‘Back to Blood’ revels in excess — just like Miami

Curbed Miami: So, How Well Did Tom Wolfe Do Depicting Miami?

NPR Books: ¡No Más! "Back To Blood" Is Much Too Much

NPR Books: "Back to Blood" excerpt

USA Today: Tom Wolfe’s ‘Back to Blood’ needs a transfusion

Wall Street Journal: A Wasp With No Sting

The New Yorker: Tom Wolfe's "Back to Blood"

1 comment:

  1. Years ago I was a big fan of Wolfe's journalism, especially the pieces collected in "Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby,"

    ...and the one called "Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine"

    "The Right Stuff," his book on the space program, was pretty good too, and I also loved the collection of pieces by him and others that he edited into the volume called "The New Journalism," which unfortunately is now out of print.

    But I've tried to read his fiction before and just couldn't get into it. I got about 1/4 of the way through "Bonfire of the Vanities" and gave up. All the writing tricks he used that seemed cool in his factual reporting -- and which he used in a very controlled way, to make a point -- turned out to be incredibly annoying when you knew he was just making stuff up, because he relied on those tricks as part of his character-building. I think as a writer he lacks confidence in his ability to create believable fictional characters, so he goes hog-wild with the sound effects and so forth, and it gets distracting.


Feel free to comment on anything you read here.

All comments must first be approved. Spam and spam links will not be tolerated or approved.