Paperback review: Back to Blood, By Tom Wolfe

Wolfe howls against America's obsessions

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The Independent Culture

Tom Wolfe is a great admirer of Dickens, and there is something Dickensian in the panoramic view of society on display here – in this case 21st-century Miami rather than Victorian London.

In this epic, hectic, satirical tale of a Cuban cop who, in trying to do his job, first offends the Cuban community, then outrages the African-American community, and then teams up with an Anglo journalist to research a dangerous story on an expat Russian oligarch, Wolfe skewers just about every contemporary American obsession going: race and identity politics for sure, but also pornography, sex addiction, celebrity culture, social status, and – a long-standing target of Wolfe's – the art world. Characters come from every stratum of society, from prostitutes to professors of French literature, cops to mayors, journalists to billionaires, and are variously Latino, black, white, mixed-race – but Wolfe doesn't just write about them, he writes through them; sees the world through their eyes. Some may find the style overheated, with its outbreaks of italics and upper-case, its clusters of exclamation marks, its bursts of onomatopoeia and rhythmic repetitions. Personally I found it addictive, and finished it in three days (it's 704 pages). It's scathing, funny, and has great set-piece scenes like the crazed orgy on a flotilla of yachts in the Florida Keys, or the unseemly scramble to buy vacuous artworks at an exhibition – not because the buyers like them, but to prevent rivals getting a sniff. Like Dickens, Wolfe is both amused and angered by the society he portrays. The satire isn't subtle. But then, Dickens wasn't subtle.