A random sampling of lines you’ll find in this broad-lens portrait of melting-pot Miami: ”¡SHEEEahHHHH ahHHHHSSHEEEE!” ”BEAT thung BEAT thung BEAT thung BEAT thung.” ”Unnnnggggghhhheeeee! … Unnnnnngggggghhhhhheeeeeee!” Yes, it’s a new Tom Wolfe novel, this one so distinctively Tom Wolfe-ish that it verges on self-parody. There’s that famously overamped prose, an exhausting procession of exclamation points and ellipses and overly emphatic capitalizations. There’s the familiar obsession with class, power, and status — an apparently unshakable conviction that all human behavior is governed by either a desperation for admiration or a terror of humiliation. And there’s the usual wide-ranging cast of characters, which here includes a Russian billionaire, an ambitious reporter, a vodka-guzzling art forger, and many more.
At the center of Back to Blood is a Cuban-American couple: controversy-prone cop Nestor Camacho and social-climbing nurse Magdalena Otero. Early on, Magdalena dumps Nestor in favor of her well-connected (if borderline-psycho) boss — after which, through a series of improbable circumstances, Nestor and Magdalena get enmeshed in a $70 million art-forgery scandal. Of course, the author is most interested in exploring Miami’s diverse neighborhoods and lampooning the city’s foolish and venal elite.
Wolfe remains an irresistibly entertaining crafter of narrative, and even at an imposing 700 pages Back to Blood zips along. At times it can feel too smooth, like he’s merely crossing topics off a set-piece checklist: Art Basel Miami, the Columbus Day regatta, and so on. And at 81 the Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full author seems befuddled by modern commonplaces such as ringtones and reality TV, which, he appears shocked to discover, isn’t always real. While there are flashes of the whizbang energy, cutting humor, and eye for damning detail that animated classic works like Bonfire, this fun but seriously flawed novel is hardly Wolfe in full. B