Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vigorous Wolfe tells tale of racism, fraud and political chicanery

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Tom Wolfe has been mining the racial divide in the United States for drama, humour and satire for more than half his life, since publishing Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers in 1970.

The man in the ice-cream suit is in his 80s now. But Back to Blood, the fourth novel among his 14 books and his first book in eight years, demonstrates that he has lost none of the vigour that inflated The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.

The language in Back to Blood spurts off the page so fast that it frequently stutters in four-word spasms.

This novel boasts more all-capital words than even that shrinking violet James Ellroy dares dish out.

These verbal pyrotechnics, mashed up with Wolfe's fascination with hip-hop lyrics that he revealed in A Man in Full and his usual complement of neologisms, punctuate a searing tale of racism, fraud and political chicanery.

Welcome to "the diseased electro-twilight" of Miami, where more than half the residents are recent immigrants and "everybody hates everybody."

Nestor Camacho, a young cop, inadvertently attracts lightning bolts of hatred when he rescues a terrified Cuban refugee from the top of the 70-foot mast on a luxurious sailboat.

Camacho is Latino -- a Spanish word that exists only in America, Wolfe points out. Camacho's fellow Cubans -- that is, Americans who immigrated from Cuba or who have families there -- accuse him of betraying his heritage and delivering the refugee to Fidel Castro's prisons.

The city seethes, and in short order the police chief has to stoop to involvement. An African-American, he owes his job to the butt-covering Latino mayor.

Throw in a small but vigorous Haitian community and a fistful of Russian oligarchs, all pushing their competing versions of the American dream.

Everybody is reverting to exaggerated racial types, going back to blood.

Wolfe's inventive nomenclature includes Magdalena; I, Camilo Camacho, Lord of This Domain; even John Smith, a pale-faced journalist.

He invokes some actual Americans with characters such as Marvin Belli, a disreputable writer. Melvin Belli was a flamboyant late-20th-century California lawyer.

Some names are simply over the top: Maria Zitzpoppen, for example, is a "stylist" on a reality television show.

Wolfe mercilessly skewers the perverted logic of Zitzpoppen's bosses, bottom-feeders passing off fiction as life.

The producer of Masters of Disaster, one such show, gloats over provoking a fight on camera between two former captains of industry.

"But Mr. Korolyov, how can you say this isn't reality? All of this just happened! Once something happens, it becomes real, and once it's real, it becomes part of reality. No?"

Wolfe is not content, though, to give his characters the best lines. Here he is, in full flight:

"Music from God knows how many amped-up speakers rolled across the water -- rap, rock, running rock, disco, metro-billy, reggae, salsa, rhumba, mambo, monback -- and collided above a loud and ceaseless undertone of two thousand, four thousand, eight thousand, sixteen thousand lungs crying out, shouting, shrieking, caterwauling, laughing, above all laughing laughing laughing laughing laughing laughing the stilted laugh of those proclaiming that this is where things are happening, and we are in the heat of it ..."

But there is more to Back to Blood than flashy language. Wolfe weaves his disparate characters into a vivid tapestry highlighted by detailed, thrilling action sequences.

Best of all, just when the reader has figured out the ending, the last word of the novel proves him or her wrong.

 

Duncan McMonagle tries to use as few capital letters as possible while teaching journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J10

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Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 10:24 AM CDT: adds photo, adds fact box

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