A sensational debut always casts a long shadow – few longer than The Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1987 novel with which Tom Wolfe, the pioneer of New Journalism, moved with such breathtaking aplomb into fiction writing. A tumultuous portrait of New York society, it was an instant classic that put him in the tricky position of having little to improve on while leaving his fans in a state of feverish excitement at what might come next.
That Wolfe's long-awaited second novel, A Man in Full, in 1998, failed to reach the heights of his first was really no surprise, hugely entertaining though it was. What did surprise was that his third, I Am Charlotte Simmons, in 2004, fell so much further short. Now, another eight years on from that book, a quarter of a century on from Bonfire, comes Wolfe's fourth novel, and if it is surrounded more by a sense of hope than expectation, then that is understandable – and not just for career-trajectory reasons. Wolfe is now 81, and while such advanced years need not preclude high literary achievement, history is against him.
So perhaps the first thing to say about Back To Blood is that the energy for which Wolfe's writing is renowned has not diminished. If any-thing, he's ramped it up. Standard punctuation just isn't enough to contain the eruptive power of his sentences. Ellipses proliferate … he just can't stop himself … they keep on coming. CAPITAL LETTERS WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS! are also reached for on a regular basis. And then there's this::::::::: the multiple colon, which Wolfe applies as liberally as he does bafflingly. He shows his age in some of his attitudes but there's still plenty of lead in his pencil. Back to Blood dazzles so much that you might want to read it through dark glasses.
In terms of scale, setting and purpose, we are very much back in Bonfire and Man in Full territory. But what those two books did for, respectively, New York and Atlanta, Back to Blood does for Miami. Once again, Wolfe revels in throwing up against each other members of different social strata, and then waiting for the mixture to combust. Urban civilisation is just a façade; humanity largely portrayed in its baser manifestations. Money, sex and power remain our driving forces. There is much horrified but fascinated dwelling on women's bodies.
Wolfe has arrived at a formula – Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and Back to Blood could almost be seen as a triptych – and it often feels like we've been here before. This time race emerges as the great fault-line running through American society. It is the lot in life that can't be escaped. Miami – the capital of Hispanic America – provides Wolfe with a teeming canvas, a city that embodies so much in America that is rapidly changing and which offers him the scope he always enjoys to range across lives from rich to poor.
The character around whom everything revolves is Nestor Camacho, a lowly-ranked cop of Cuban heritage. The novel opens with Nestor confronting mortal danger and an agonising moral dilemma as he is charged with rescuing/capturing an illegal Cuban immigrant from atop the 70ft mast of a luxury yacht. It's a brilliant set-piece, the kind Wolfe specialises in, and he knows to keep these show-stoppers coming. From a harbour-front orgy to a deliciously tense restaurant dinner to a police raid on a crack den, they're like chase scenes in Bourne movies.
Nestor is a gentle, simple soul who's on a journey of self discovery. He's buffeted by forces beyond his control, not least, to start with, his love for the beautiful Magdalena. She's another member of the Cuban community but she's further along the road to absorption into white society thanks to her work as an assistant to a creepy doctor who specialises in treating people with porn addiction. Add in an ambitious young newspaper reporter, a black police chief, a community of super-rich Russians, a group of crack dealers, some denizens of the conceptual art world, and you have just some of the people – symbols might be a better word – that Wolfe deploys largely in the cause of showing what a morally depraved mess the US is in. Only Nestor and Magdalena really convince as living breathing human beings.
Line by line, there's much to enjoy because Wolfe is incapable of writing a dull sentence. There's always pleasure to be had in Wolfeian language: the physicality of such words as "yawing", which he has almost made his own. There are lots of nice in-jokes – we glimpse an art-world mover called Caroline Peyton-Soames and movie stars Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade. But Back to Blood feels less like reality than a gaudily bedecked vehicle designed to convey Wolfe's mounting disgust at the world.
At the heart of the novel is a deep, conservative moralism. As the US goes to the polls, a state-of-the-nation novel from one of its most insightful chroniclers will be seized upon. Wolfe's verdict – and you have to wonder if it will be his last – is as damning as it is arresting.