Sunday, 6 January 2013

Back to Blood - thawing a cool kid

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape: 2012) Tom Wolfe continues to try and live up to The Bonfire of the Vanities. The 81 year-old turns his journalistic spotlight on a flawed Miami, a city transformed by recent immigrants and struggling to cope with the problems the demographic shift has brought. It’s a world he explores through (amongst others) an ostracized Cuban cop, a Russian billionaire oligarch, a preppy Yale educated journalist, a professor trying to gentrify his Haitian background, and a larger than life black police chief.

Welcome back! It's 2013! And as we all trudge through January, the most depressing of all the months, let's try to get back to some sense of normality.

Sunday morning.

A new GBR post.

I approached this one a little nervously. It had that cool-kid aura. The kind that of kid who just has it. Doesn’t need to shout about it. This is a 700 page epic. Written by Tom Wolfe. It promised to lift the grimy lid on Miami, and explore racial tensions through an assortment of characters and plot lines.

It just felt way cooler than me. On a different strata.

So I tip-toed up to it. Worried it’d all fly over my head. That it’d be too complex, the writing too poetic, the social themes too distant.

I needn’t have worried. The cool kid soon melted, let me into his world, and swiftly got me thinking like him. No doubt there’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s kept in pretty good order by Wolfe, nothing getting too messy, too confusing. The social themes are attacked head on, with little sub-text (that I could spot, anyway). There’s not much interpretation needed by the reader; Wolfe lays it all out there on the page.

And his writing style? That’s what provided the handful of stand-out moments of the book for me. Wolfe has a sense for the senses. By which I mean he uses everything he can to put across sounds, smells, physical feelings - human experience. He creates rhythms. He gets creative with punctuation. He shifts font. Uses subscript. All the tricks in the book and one or two new ones to create passages that get as close to the real thing as he can. He drops it in bursts, flashes of poetry which remind you he’s speaking about real stinky people and real hot places.

And then, as with any aloof cool kid, the more I got to know this book, the more mystery it lost. Which was a shame. As the book wore on (and, at 700+ pages, it had a lot of wearing to do), it felt as if the plot simplified too much. The characters, so lively and real at the outset, slowly became simply devices to move the story on. Actors on a stage.

I guess I was expecting something bigger. I was expecting something flawless. And it wasn’t. There was too little majesty. Too little awe. There were flabby bits, sections which became over explained, and even a couple of unbelievable character developments towards the end.

Which is pretty harsh, I know. After all, there’s no denying the quality of this book. The story is genuinely gripping. Wolfe’s Miami is a compelling world. His small behavioural observations and grand social arguments make it all relevant (albeit ultimately too close to ordinary). And his language, his poetry, his journalism - it all makes it incredibly readable.

So what am I saying? I guess it’s that old problem of expectation again. If this book was written by an unknown, if it looked a little less ambitious, if it flew under the radar a little more, I’m sure it would have packed a bigger punch. I’m sure I’d have found it easier to focus on its good points than feel essentially disappointed at the end.


We kick of 2013 with a victim of expectation. Totally worth reading though, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did now I’ve lowered your expectations.

Next week, I’m not sure. I started Zadie Smith’s new one, but it’ll be a race to finish it by next Sunday. On the other hand, I do have a Kindle Paperwhite now, so I can read ANYWHERE!

Look out, world.

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