There comes a moment, some 570 pages into Tom Wolfe's latest 700-plus-paged novel, when two characters find themselves at the mercy of a reality TV camera crew. One of the production team, they learn to their puzzlement, is a writer. On television, they're told, "you have to create a hyper-reality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality." The screenwriter gives narrative structure to the unwieldy facts. So too does Wolfe, whose fiction often has the feel of hyper-real journalism, just as the New Journalism that he named and pioneered famously employs the devices of great fiction.
Back to Blood returns to the Dickensian social cross-section that characterised his first two fat fictional works, after the more conservative campus confines of 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Like his first, New York-based novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and his second, A Man In Full (1998), set in Atlanta, Back to Blood takes a city as both its surroundings and its subject. Miami's abiding preoccupations, to judge by this reading, are sex and immigration. The latter, at least, is unsurprising: as the novel's Mayor conveniently reflects, "Miami is the only city in the world… whose population is more than fifty per cent recent immigrants."
Wolfe's protagonist, Officer Nestor Camacho, is an upstanding young Cuban cop, who unwittingly thrusts himself into the maelstrom of Miami race relations when he stages a dramatic solo rescue of a Cuban asylum seeker from the top of a yacht mast, only to earn the ire of his own community by indirectly inflicting deportation on the rescuee. Later, he's featured on YouTube overpowering a black drug dealer, and accused of racism. Soon, his only ally is WASP reporter John Smith (christened, presumably, to recall the Smith who encountered Pocohontas).
Nestor has sex on his mind, too: dumped by Magdalena, a social-climbing psychiatric nurse, he fixates on Ghislaine, an angelic Haitian community worker. Wolfe drew critical derision for his depiction, in Charlotte Simmons, of a young female character discovering her own sexual power. And where his grand male characters acquire lives of their own, his women are still thin: in the chapters describing Art Basel and the Columbus Day Regatta, both conspicuously built on reportage, Magdalena is little more than a naïve observer on the author's behalf. She shares his moral shock at the pornographic excess of these major Miami events, even as she screws her way up the social market, from Cuban cop to americano shrink to Russian oligarch.
Elsewhere, the aspirational French-Haitian Professor Lantier, the Yale-educated editor of the Miami Herald, and the black police chief all think in furiously punctuated sentences, channelling Wolfe's research. Sometimes, after another lengthy thought bubble detailing the demographic spread of South Florida, readers might reasonably wonder if they wouldn't rather read 20,000 words of Wolfe's on Miami in, say, Vanity Fair.
In Back to Blood Wolfe puts punctuation to use with exasperating profligacy: exclamation marks; ellipses; baffling ranks of colons ("::::::"); CAPS LOCK. Like the backlit hoarding that advertises a Miami Beach strip joint, Wolfe's ambitions are "huge huge huge brilliant brilliant brilliant lurid lurid lurid". And it seems remarkable that at 81 he should still be writing with such verve. Back to Blood is energising, fascinating – and utterly exhausting.