Tom Wolfe goes 'Back' to signature style with new novel

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With a BANG, a SMACK, hundreds of ellipses and God only knows how many exclamation marks, Tom Wolfe is back.

Wolfe released his new book, “Back to Blood,” earlier this week, after an eight-year dry stretch. In his novel, which has a plot that is anything but realistic, immigration, race, class and today’s state of journalism are just some of the issues addressed. 

Set in Miami, the novel’s opening scene features Cuban-American cop Nestor Camacho saving a Cuban’s life while simultaneously preventing him from illegally entering the United States. This causes unrest and intense disapproval among his Cuban-born family and community. Meanwhile, a Yale-bred journalist by the name of John Smith (yes, really) begins investigating a tip that Russian oligarch Sergei Korolyov donated forged paintings to a local museum. Through some odd twists, Camacho begins to help Smith with his investigation of Korolyov, who happens to be seeing Camacho’s ex-girlfriend (yes, really).

While the plot is laughably outlandish, Wolfe still finds a way to weave together an engaging plot line. Besides, it is not Wolfe’s plot that is the strong point of the novel ­— with any novel he writes, the strong point is always his writing style.

Wolfe coined his own style when he introduced “new journalism” to the world in the 1960s. It is quick, energetic, never-stopping, heart-thumping and often downright confusing. Wolfe buries the reader in a sea of adjectives, punctuation, alliteration and onomatopoeia, making the novel overwhelming at times. With the exception of the short reprieves between chapters, his writing has no pauses for breathing or rest.

Despite the frustrations of his style, Wolfe brings strong language to the literary table that no other author does. Amid the confusion, Wolfe finds a way to make sense of it all for the reader. His novel reads like an oral transcription with a wide range of diction, meshed with every possible hyperbole the man has up his sleeve.

Wolfe’s writing style is something no one else can control. As long as readers are patient with him, Wolfe artfully guides them along. The beat of Wolfe’s style changes depending on which character he is writing about. This creates a second dimension to otherwise flat characters.

But while the book addresses the serious issues of immigration and race, Wolfe’s comically implausible plot takes away from what could have been a somber approach to the issues. Furthermore, his cartoonish style often translates into cartoonish characters. For example, psychiatrist Norman Lewis is a loony, mad-scientist type who counsels and treats porn addicts, yet possibly suffers from a sex addiction himself. And there is the Miami Herald’s editor, Edward T. Topping IV, a cowardly man who initially is afraid to do any kind of real journalistic work for Miami’s most widely circulated paper. These characters weaken the novel’s attempt to tackle serious issues.

Though flawed, “Back to Blood” is an enjoyable book as long as you have both the time and energy to deal with Wolfe’s imaginative world and style. If you do not have these luxuries, “Back to Blood” might be a book best saved for Christmas break.

Printed on Friday, October 26, 2012 as: Wolfe's new novel rivets readers