'Back to Blood': Tom Wolfe's Miami novel falls victim to stylistic excess
In Tom Wolfe's new novel, "Back to Blood," a rollicking good story of Miami politics is overwhelmed by the author's stylistic and grammatical quirks, not to mention 2,709 exclamation points. (!)
Special to The Seattle Times
'Back to Blood'
by Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown, 720 pp., $30
"Short short short-shorts! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex!"
And Tom Wolfe is off.
Please, for the love of language, could some editor stop him?
Please, please, please, please?
In "Back to Blood" — Wolfe's latest novel since 2004's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" — adrenaline doesn't pump, it pumps, pumps, pumps, pumps. The word lengthen becomes l e n g t h e n, screaming becomes screeeeeaming and crash becomes C R A A A S H!
I get it. Wolfe colors outside the lines. But does he have to use crayons?
Wolfe, 81, has long been celebrated for the energy of his writing and for what one book jacket calls his "stylistic legerdemain." But in "Back to Blood," all that style feels like schtick, a feeling that only deepens as his unfortunate choices accumulate.
He introduces a TV-show stylist — a throwaway character, a woman who makes but a glancing appearance — for the apparent thrill of naming her Miss Zitzpoppen.
:::::: Miss Zitzpoppen? Oh. That's just, that's just ... Miss Zitzpoppen? ::::::
That was my reaction, as Wolfe would have punctuated it. He's employed this six-colon thing before (see "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"), but the device gets a real workout here, as brackets for inner voice. Some pages have so many dots — 12 dots here, 12 dots there — that I pictured Wolfe playing Yahtzee: Did he roll two sixes? Did he roll three fours?
The shame of it is, the din created by Wolfe's writing (destined becomes DEStined and dollars DOLlars — why, there's not a garage big enough to hold this writer's toolbox!) distracts from what is a rollicking good story.
"Back to Blood" is set in Miami, a broiling, fractious city where "everybody hates everybody." By doing his job — usually, extraordinarily well — a cop named Nestor Camacho manages to alienate one group after another (Cubans, blacks, Haitians), becoming, as the mayor says, a "one-man race riot."
There are municipal politics, race politics, immigration politics, newspaper politics, class politics, and the distorting powers of YouTube and reality TV. Akin to "The Bonfire of the Vanities," the book has memorable characters and big themes.
What it doesn't have is a mute button.
"Sunbursts! Sunbursts! Sunbursts! Sunbursts!"
The book has at least 2,709 exclamation points. I counted them! Leave aside what that says about me (hour after hour, counting exclamation points) and take that last sentence — "I counted them!" — and multiply by 2,709. Does your head hurt? Mine did!
This fusillade is nothing new (see "A Man in Full"), but in "Back to Blood," the exclamation point almost serves as punctuation of default. The effect had me yearning for Old School periods. No one says hi. Everyone says Hi! If there is a place on this earth where everyone says Hi!, I don't want to visit.
Wolfe uses "!!" and "!!!" and "?!" and "!?" and "!!??," and for extra oomph he italicizes a word, capitalizes every letter — and attaches an exclamation point.
This makes the book very LOUD!
Lou Diamond Phillips is doing the audiobook.
Sam Kinison (the late comedian, Rest in Peace) wasn't available.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.