Can the Wolfe Still Growl?

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Byline: Craig Brown Book of the Week

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe Jonathan Cape [euro]16.99 When is a novel not a novel? Fourteen years ago, Tom Wolfe launched a bullish attack on three of his nearcontemporaries - John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer - after they criticised his bestselling novel A Man In Full for being journalistic and twodimensional.

'They've wasted their careers by not engaging with the life around them, by turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history,' he said.

'Instead of going out into the world, instead of plunging into the irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today... our old lions have withdrawn, retreated, shielding their eyes against the light, and turned inward to such subject matter as their own little crevice, i.e. "the literary world"...' Wolfe himself was a comparative newcomer to the art of writing novels. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he had been the most exciting journalist in America, bringing amazing stylistic bravura and wonderfully beady observation to the great social and artistic movements of the day. There was a crackling energy to his prose, much of it produced by the friction between his outlandish rulebreaking style and his unfashionably conservative outlook. In 1981, he gave up journalism in order to write a novel. Six years later, The Bonfire Of The Vanities appeared, to instant acclaim. It remains a tremendous book, timely and prescient, the perfect commentary on the self-seeking excess of the overblown Eighties.

His next novel, A Man In Full, took Wolfe 11 years to complete, much of that time given over to research. His next novel was called I Am Charlotte Simmons. I haven't read it, but it is, by all accounts, a dud: his current publishers avoid mentioning it on the jacket blurb of his latest.

Ah, yes, his latest: Back to Blood. Or, as Wolfe might put it: 'Ahhhhh! YEEEEEESSS!!!!! His latest latest latest latest Back to Blood - Baaaack to Blooooodddd!' Wolfe has chosen to set it in Miami, a city which, he reminds us twice, is unique in the world, as half its citizenship are recent immigrants who speak another language. On one level, it examines what he clearly sees as the great illusion of America as a melting pot: 'If you really want to understand Miami,' says his fictitious Mayor, 'you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.' The title, Back To Blood, encapsulates this notion that, faced with the turmoil of modern life, everyone is retreating into racial tribalism.

Wolfe's novel is as broad and panoramic as ever - more than 700 pages, and full of increasingly lively and unlikely goings-on between a disparate range of people - but at no point does it ring true. Partly this is to do with his clumsy racial stereotyping: with token exceptions his blacks are thugs, his Russians bullies, his whites decadents, his Cubans yokels. …