Back to Blood: A Novel by Tom Wolfe (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. 720 pp)
Tom Wolfe is an American author born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. He earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee and his Ph.D. from Yale. Originally a journalist, Wolfe ventured into book publishing as a leader in the literary nonfiction genre. Wolfe lives in New York.
In Consideration of Post-Race
It’s been said we are headed toward a post-racial existence where WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) aren’t the majority and don’t hold exclusive rights to privilege.
As the theory goes, before the end of the century—barring any unforeseen circumstances—Americans will have married and reproduced enough times to create an American multi-cultural ethnicity. Thus with these advancements, complaints over racism, marginalization, and socio-economic status will slide into oblivion.
In Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, the amalgamated Miami landscape confronts this utopian theory.
It almost seems as if Wolfe wants to make Miami the frontrunner in this post-racial world, and argue that instead of racism disappearing, it becomes hyper-sensitized.
The Many Characters of Miami
Back to Blood exhibits the many layers of Miami through multiple main characters.
The reader encounters the principle character, Nestor Camacho, early. A Cuban-American cop with honest intentions quickly set with an unenviable dilemma between doing his job and alienating his family and Cuban heritage.
Nestor’s girlfriend, Magdalena Otero becomes increasingly disenfranchised with her Cuban heritage and becomes smitten with her powerful employer, a psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction. She’s enamored with wealth, opulence, and access to everything privilege can buy, including the most modern variations of art.
Inside this exclusive circle of Miami aristocracy resides Sergei Korolyov, a Russian oligarch and wealthy benefactor who donated $70 million in original paintings to the city of Miami to establish the Korolyov Art Museum.
Acting on a tip suggesting Korolyov’s donation was faked, an up-an-coming journalist, John Smith, seeks Nestor’s help in uncovering a scandal.
With this narrative acting as the skeleton, Wolfe uses the story to illustrate the many levels we still need to ascend in order to become a post-racial state.
“Everybody…all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying…but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.’ But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds—Back to blood! All people, everywhere, you have no choice but—Back to blood” (22)!
No matter how many attempts to reconcile and redeem separate cultures, blood lines often form the definition of “us vs. them.”
So, in a place like Miami, tension defines all relationships. The mayor notes:
“Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell—in the world—whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants…recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years…and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you—I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody’” (424).
While Wolfe’s basic premise intrigues, Back to Blood left much to desire. The narrative, as you’ve probably ascertained from my summary early, is all over the place. Now, such a technique isn’t in itself bad. Often such narratives create space for the physical location to become a main character. Certainly, Wolfe hoped this direction would offer profundity.
But I often got lost in poor character development—perhaps most of all with the Magdalena character. As a recent college graduate working as a nurse in a prestigious practice, one would assume Magdalena possesses a basic level of intelligence outside of her craft. I would argue it’s difficult to make it through college without becoming a decently well-rounded and intelligent person.
Yet time and time again, Magdalena trips up on simple subjects with her employer. Consider this example:
“Magdalena grew aggravated on top of irritated. He was mocking her—and at the same time he was burying her in words she didn’t know. What the hell was a medallion? What the hell did real property mean? Was that different from real estate? What the hell did equity mean? And if she didn’t know that, how was she supposed to know what equity owner meant” (247)?
Of course, every person has their issues with certain subjects and it can bring a bit of humanity to a character when they show weakness, but Magdalena consistently expressed ignorance over every subject introduced. At a certain point, her character loses believability. A college educated woman with a great career path knows nothing? I sincerely doubt it.
Ultimately, Wolfe’s Back to Blood offers interesting criticism around the hope of a post-racial state. Even a place like Miami where WASPs aren’t the majority, the segmentation of society rears its ugly head. Back to Blood entertained and was a well-written book, but it often left me frustrated with its character and narrative inconsistencies.
I recommend starting somewhere else with Wolfe.
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