In his latest novel Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe (I am Charlotte Simmons) introduces a motley crew of characters who find themselves in each other’s cross hairs as the plot progresses. The story is set in contemporary Miami, Florida. Wolfe exposes the prejudices and eclectic culture that exists in this part of the country. It is a virtual race war between whites, blacks, and Cubans, and when the Chief of Police and the Mayor get involved, things are bound to get political.
Wolfe ends the prologue with the gist of the novel: “Everybody...all of them...it’s back to blood! Religion is dying...but everybody still has to believe in something.” Without religion or spirituality to fall back on, people are consequently left with a feeling of hopelessness, abandonment, futility. The only other option, then, to create a sense of togetherness is to revert back to blood – to stick with your race and defend its honor. This is the very assertion that the characters wrestle with throughout the novel.
Nestor Camacho, arguably the pivot character around whom everyone else turns, is a Cuban American police officer who saves the life of a Cuban citizen who is trying to sneak across the border. Unfortunately, once Camacho carries this man down a ship mast, the man is arrested and sent back to Cuba. Camacho is now torn between being a valiant hero in the white community and being considered a traitor in the Cuban community; even his own parents turn their backs on him. And to make things worse, his girlfriend breaks up with him at the same time, choosing her white boss, a psychiatrist who treats sexual perversions, over Camacho.
But Camacho is the not only character trying to reconcile his race with his beliefs. There is the African American police chief who needs to put a foot down when one of his own is rightfully arrested, putting his police duties ahead of his race affiliations. And the French Haitian family whose patriarch refuses to align himself with the Haitians; he forbids the Creole language in his house. And the Cuban American nurse who leaves the Hialeah community behind for a glamorous lifestyle amidst art collectors and rich white boys.
It certainly takes a while to get used to Wolfe’s writing style. Apart from the Spanish, French, Creole, and slang words peppered throughout, Wolfe makes it difficult to decipher what is being said and what is being thought. He uses colons to set apart what is being internalized: “They separated, and ::::::¡Dios Mio! I’ve never seen such a gorgeous man in my life!:::::: Maurice began some rapid introductions.” He also is a prolific user of the colon, making the prose often seem disjointed and abrupt.
Once readers become accustomed to the writing, Back to Blood moves at a much quicker pace. In fact, so much of it seems to be written in a fast-pace style, reminiscent of his defining work, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which recounts Wolfe’s cross-country, psychedelic-drug-enhanced trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s. Like this novel, Back to Blood is a stream of consciousness narration that touches on current regional issues and pressures facing today’s younger generation.