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It's out in the bookstores today.

(A&F links to I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and to the recent documentary Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood (2012).)

Connie Ogle writes for the Miami Herald:

Sprawling, messy, maddening, exhilarating, exhausting, over-caffeinated and hyper-punctuated, Tom Wolfe’s giddy Back to Blood is as excessive as the city it celebrates and eviscerates. The satire lands on obvious Miami targets — the rich, the shallow, the venal, the felonious, status seekers and zealots of every stripe —and the punches connect with all the subtlety of a storm surge. It will offend sensibilities all around, but the novel’s pointed observations are dangerously close to reality: Wolfe, Master of the New Journalism Universe, has done his homework and done it well ...

Oh, yes. Infuriating. Back to Blood is pervasively flamboyant, a passionate argument against (or maybe for) the bloodlessness of preening postmodernism. But flamboyance is Miami’s native tongue. This is a book that yells and screams and sometimes makes you long for peace and quiet, but you won’t be able to ignore it — especially if you live here ...

Back to Blood has plenty of moments of comedy, including scenes at a Broward assisted-living facility where the clatter of aluminum walkers on pavement signals the race is on for lemon meringue pie. But there is nothing in the novel that couldn’t happen tomorrow right outside your window. Who hasn’t heard the pathetic cry of the outraged Anglo: “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW!” or its mocking response: “ You een Mee-ah-mee now!” Phonetically rendered accents permeate Back to Blood, and they will make you squirm. But many of them sound like home ...

Michael Moynihan writes for The Daily Beast:

At 81, Wolfe has returned with his fourth work of fiction, Back to Blood, an energetic and unflinching satire of “post-racial” America, viewed through the lens of the still-very-racial city of Miami. Wolfe, who once self-identified as a “status theorist,” has long obsessed over the shifting tectonic plates of social order, tribal affiliation, and class stratification in America. In his earlier years, Wolfe’s journalism absorbed the milieus of hippies, astronauts, art curators, limousine liberals, and military men, ruthlessly mocking those who invited mockery. Twenty-five years after his debut novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, satirized the state of race and class in 1980s New York, the city has been neutered by gentrification. In 21st-century America, Wolfe argues, it’s Miami that’s a bubbling cauldron of racial tension ...

In Wolfe’s Miami—a very good approximation of actual Miami—Cubans and African-Americans eye each other warily, and it’s the white cops who are referred to as “you people,” the “minorities” on the majority Hispanic force. Add to this volatile mix a Haitian college professor who laments his son’s assimilation into African-American culture of “stupid clothes and the ignorant hip-hop music, and the vile Black English” (African-American is a phrase, Wolfe writes, that “white folks uttered ... like they were walking across a bed of exploded lightbulb shards”), sleazy Russian oligarchs who haunt the city’s burgeoning art scene, an Anglo doctor who counsels porn addicts, and a WASP journalist with “khaki pants so well pressed you could cut your finger on the crease" ...

Edited by J.A.A. Purves
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Meanwhile, Esquire isn't very kind:

In Back to Blood, Wolfe comes across as a white guy explaining brown people to a room full of white guys. Sure, he burns pages giving his readers access to these characters' interiors, but once he's given you the sociological stats (age, gender, race, occupation) there's really no need for it. Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could've guessed from the jump. Not a one of them seems capable of an ambiguous or contradictory thought. Bankers think about money. Ball players think about ball. Astronauts think about flight. And if they are not thinking about these things, they are probably thinking about getting their dick sucked. Maybe that's how things work in the real world. You don't make lots of money without thinking about money all the time. But in the pages of Back to Blood, this kind of thing makes for an awfully long slog, a deeply unconvincing group portrait.

What Wolfe does get right — the heat, the beach, the neighborhoods — is the kind of stuff you can pick up over the course of a couple weekends. Or from Wikipedia.

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Meanwhile, Esquire isn't very kind:

Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could've guessed from the jump ... Bankers think about money. Ball players think about ball. Astronauts think about flight. And if they are not thinking about these things, they are probably thinking about getting their dick sucked.

Boris Kachka also has a nice piece on Wolfe and his new novel in New York Magazine's Vulture, in which it is mentioned that his main character police officer has memorized poetry by Rudyard Kipling. So maybe Esquire's Alsup didn't read the whole book.

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Meanwhile, Esquire isn't very kind:

Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could've guessed from the jump ... Bankers think about money. Ball players think about ball. Astronauts think about flight. And if they are not thinking about these things, they are probably thinking about getting their dick sucked.

Boris Kachka also has a nice piece on Wolfe and his new novel in New York Magazine's Vulture, in which it is mentioned that his main character police officer has memorized poetry by Rudyard Kipling. So maybe Esquire's Alsup didn't read the whole book.

Could be.

Here's The Millions' mixed review:

As for his exhortation to emphasize the real over the imagined: Wolfe demonstrates his abilities here as well. In a refreshing bit of contemporary insight – and as a contrast to Jonathan Franzen’s improbably technophobic college students in Freedom – the young people in this novel send one another texts, tweets, and “Instagrams” on their iPhones. Real musicians like Pitbull, Shakira, Rihanna, and, hysterically, LMFAO are name-checked. Somebody said to be getting “white boy wasted” (!!!) has “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRLFgBq8P68” as their cell’s ring tone. At one point, a police boat is described as “the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding.”

However despite these superficial accuracies, the novel is ultimately tripped up by the banal. Compared to their vibrant setting, Wolfe’s characters and plot details are predictable and flat. We learn scarcely anything about Nestor’s motivations and interests, only that he likes to tinker with cell phone ringtones. Magdalena is an enigma: a college-educated psychiatric nurse who doesn’t know the difference between a “logotherapist” and a “pill therapist,” and who doesn’t understand the words “cutting-edge,” “invests,” “extortionist,” or “penthouse,” yet does somehow know the word “czar.” Some characters are introduced (like Edward Topping’s wife) only to be completely forgotten later on. Almost every male character is a hulking, powerful wall of muscle. Almost every female character is a vivacious Latina in tight clothes. One of them even refers to doing the deed as “giving [the guy] some papaya.” (Ugh.)

Full confession--I've read some of Wolfe's essays and none of his novels.

Edited by NBooth
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  • 4 months later...

I loved about two thirds of this book and was looking forward to championing it here and elsewhere, but the book didn't come together. More puzzling, I watched a video interview with Wolfe in which he said the title of the book has to do with the "loss of religion" in America, and how cultures are going "back to blood" -- their lineage, ethnic roots -- for a sense of connection.

I wouldn't argue with the idea of cultural connection, but the religion angle, unless I missed something screamingly obvious (been known to happen), is very muted here, to the point that, had I not been told that was central to the book, I never would've guessed it. I don't mind that the characters are obvious; I like that they're vivid, and I like that Wolfe deals with male sexuality and sexual dysfunction without trying to excuse it or explain it away.

But what, ultimately, is this story about? I've just finished it today, and I can't really say. That disappoints me.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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