Wolfe's well-meaning Cuban-American hero survives as a modern-day Candide amid the craziness and corruption of America's hottest melting pot.
Tom Wolfe was one of the showiest voices of his generation, the New Journalists' point man, the writer who got the most attention -- well, insisted upon it -- and, for a while, lived up to his self-promotion with such great stuff as "The Right Stuff" and "From Bauhaus to Our House."
That generation, though, was 40 years ago. Wolfe's manic, cockeyed stream-of-consciousness style, with its giggly exaggerations popping out in italics or CAPITAL LETTERS including lots of sound effects like "aahhhuhwaaaAHHHH" slammed into page-long sentences is not what writers are giving readers anymore. It just ain't cool.
One could point out to Wolfe, "You're not cutting-edge if your whole generation is dead or dying. You may be great. You may be iconic ... but you're not cutting-edge."
I quote the one and the same Tom Wolfe who, without irony, wrote that apt description of himself in his long-anticipated new novel, "Back to Blood," the hoped-for comeback after his overstuffed turkey, "I Am Charlotte Simons," roasted his old publisher and sent Tom and his ice-cream suit to Little, Brown.
Wolfe's novels -- "Bonfire of the Vanities," "A Man in Full" and "Simons" -- are his brand of journalism converted into fiction. The subjects are the cultures of New York, Atlanta and the college scene, respectively. He now focuses his gaze on Miami, called the capital of Latin America, a tropical churn of nationalities -- Cuban, Caribbean, South American -- streaming through the traditional African-American and white communities with a sprinkling of Russian émigrés.
It's a microcosm of changing America, high-octane fuel for an ambitious novelist who wants to cook up a mulligatawny stew that will have readers' brows sweating from its heat and spice, so we eagerly await the savory concoction. Yet, despite the noise and glitter of rattling pots and pans, the dish is nothing but frothy egg whites piled atop a store-bought pie crust, and a stale one at that.
"Back to Blood" charts the rocky course of Cuban-American Nestor Camacho, a muscled-up Miami cop who offends his own people, the black community and the Russian gulag while exposing the Miami art scene as a fraud for wealthy philistines -- or maggots, as Wolfe calls them.
Wolfe throws an elbow at the Haitians, as well, although the lone virgin in the book, a Haitian-American college student with nobility and impeccable manners -- in other words, a cliché -- may prove to be Nestor's salvation.
Wolfe sets tribe against tribe because "it's back to blood!" in America. The melting pot myth is just that, a myth to be exposed by the iconic Tom Wolfe, even though it was exposed years ago. "If you want to understand Miami," says the Cuban-American mayor, "you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody."
It seems that Wolfe, now 81, hates everybody, as well, and that's a sad conclusion to draw from this undisciplined mess of a novel in which no one escapes the withering snobbery and disdain of this cranky old man.
Bob Hoover is the retired books editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.