18 January 2014

Miami Monkey Business

Back to Blood
by Tom Wolfe 

Tom Wolfe’s style seems to grow more hysterical with every book. He sprays the page with italics and exclamation marks as though wielding a pressure-hose. Coupled with his obsession about being up-to-the-minute in just about every possible way (fashion, popular culture, slang, political issues, you name it), he gives a very good impression of an overcaffeinated tabloid journalist. Under it all, though, he writes conventional novels of morals and manners in the classic nineteenth-century style – the sort of novels Dickens, Trollope, Henry James and George Eliot wrote.

Here is another of them. I found it exciting and satisfying, if at times rather exhausting, to read. Its principal obsession, as with all novels by Tom Wolfe, is status and the remarkable things people do and say in order to gain it, establish it and prevail over others in competition for it. His portrayal of human status competition is ethological rather than anthropological, giving us the Naked Ape in all his simian nudity. Yet he shows us that old-fashioned human values — even moral values — are not incompatible with the imperatives of biology.

This book is set in Miami and explores tensions among the different ethnic groups in that definitively multicultural city. It tells a great story. It has a genuine and very likeable hero, a heroine who learns life’s lessons the hard way, a storybook villain, a perfectly-executed plot and an ending that manages to leave you feeling satisfied and fulfilled even though the Big Question remains not-quite-answered. It is a masterly performance by a novelist at the height of his powers. Despite Wolfe's manic style, this is the best-crafted and most satisfying new work of fiction I have read since Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.