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book review

Tom Wolfe

In his epitaph for the Irish poet, In Memory of W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden writes of authors with suspect politics: "[Time] worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives …/ Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views,/ And will pardon Paul Claudel,/ Pardons [Yeats] for writing well."

Will time pardon Tom Wolfe? The man in the white suit's new novel, Back to Blood, is a bloated work of hastiness, ignorance and downright mean-spiritedness. It will require some kind of strange excuse.

Certainly the man in the white suit has his views: against the modern novel (insufficiently realistic), against contemporary art (too conceptual), in favour of George W. Bush and the Iraq War (a stance Wolfe likens to saying, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester").

And certainly he has lived by language. The octogenarian has had a prolific, prismatic career, first as an innovator of New Journalism, penning such essentials of the genre as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and then as the author of bestselling novels such as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man In Full (1998).

But not nearly so triumphant is his legacy this century. We still mourn the forests levelled to print I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), a howlingly out-of-touch novel of student life at a modern American university, which garnered Wolfe one regrettable laurel, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And his new novel, Back to Blood, far from taking Wolfe back to basics, sees him once again disastrously overreaching. Back to Blood is something far worse than politically suspect: It is unpardonably bad writing.

Miami, where "everybody hates everybody," is "the only city in the world where more than one half of all citizens [are] recent immigrants." Nestor Camacho, a 25-year-old officer on the predominantly Cuban police force, sets Miami's blood boiling when, in an acrobatic display, he rescues a Cuban refugee atop a 40-foot mast before the man reaches American soil.

The rescue has a tectonic effect, dividing Miami along its racial, ethnic and social fault lines. For inadvertently denying the man asylum, Nestor is ostracized by his Cuban community and simultaneously loses his beloved, Magdalena Otero. Nestor is then abandoned by his remaining allies when a video of him brutalizing a black crack dealer goes viral. Pinned to this allegorical plot are other paper dolls of American life, including insecure WASPs, francophile Haitians, Russian oligarchs and blacks who apparently speak like this: "Nome sayin'?" and "I'm rack!" and "What business 'at s'pose be a yo's?" (Wolfe is probably the only man in America who still says "blingbling.")

Nothing suggests that Wolfe has thought deeply about the lives of his characters, as evidenced by his reliance on descriptors such as "the Cop Look" and "the Reporter Look," phrases apparently designed to evoke clichés, the mortal enemy of literature. Wolfe's over-italicized, over-punctuated prose, which incessantly repeats words (my favourite: "He's stymied stymied stymied") drowns out all plausible psychology. On a private island, Magdalena, who comes from a lower-class Cuban family, sees a jammed car lane which all of the island's servants are forced to use: "She didn't know why the whole thing riled her so much." Really? A professor's wife has been dead for only two years, and readers are asked rhetorically, "Why did [the professor] continue to think of [her] at least a dozen times a day?" I wonder! And in one of the many internal monologues indicated by six colons – yes, six colons – instead of quotation marks, Nestor fantasizes about Magdalena's "loamy loins."

Wolfe has been poorly served by his editors at Little, Brown, if indeed he had any. Back to Blood reads like a first draft. Repetitions abound. An atheist, Wolfe nevertheless deploys "God knows" repeatedly, especially when he's unable to complete a sentence: "she was a vision … of God knew what."

In case readers are unaware of how dramatic Nestor's story is, within 60 pages he is as "sore as he had ever been in his life," he rushes to get dressed "as fast as he had ever gotten dressed in his life," and then time passes "as slowly as it had ever passed in his life." Later, he drinks "more alcohol than he had ever had in one evening in his life," which leads him to feel "as bad as he had ever felt in his life." Go figure. And could someone account for Wolfe's fixation with the solar plexus, a glaring noun that by my count appears more than a dozen times?

Ever since Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, an essay published in 1989, Wolfe has been playing offence for his own literary techniques. Authors, he wrote, must adopt a journalistic method in order to re-engage with the authentic energies of society. Wolfe's rigorous research has always been the stuff of literary lore, the secret to those small naturalistic details that lend his fiction the aura of documentary. Certainly this technique was on the march in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Readers of that novel today will still find themselves wholly present on the manic floors of 1980s Wall Street, or in New York's maddening, Bleak House-like courts of justice.

No such experience is available in Back to Blood. Again, an editor ought to have coached Wolfe through some of these details, especially anything pertaining to the digital. Better yet, ask an intern. We do not use "iPhone" as a verb, but we do use "Google" rather than "look these terms up on Google." Wolfe's famous sound effects – meant to plunge you into the very heart of reality! – are rendered inaudible when he continuously refers to an iPhone's text messaging as going "beep beep be-beep." The visuals are no better. Nowadays, when a large crowd gathers – "two deep, three deep, God knows how many deep" – and photographs an event in broad daylight, you will not find the "Sunbursts! Sunbursts! Sunbursts!" of camera flashes. And can anyone find me a supposedly chic woman in the art world who copies her hairstyle "from that English girl – what was her name? – Posh Spice"?

Yes, this is nitpicking, but Wolfe trumpets his own fiction precisely for the accuracy of such detail. Back to Blood misfires without fact-checking, for its satiric missiles are only as damaging as Wolfe's journalistic credibility. Instead, readers will have the sense of being prejudicially sentenced by a man with obsolete standards. This a tragic fate for the author of Radical Chic.

It is unnecessary to state that Back to Blood would never have been published were it not for the author's prestige. But it is worth asking: What kind of work should a writer in his 80s undertake? Perhaps Wolfe could take a cue from his fellow New Journalist, Joan Didion, who, rather than attempting to encompass America, has turned her attention to that final, undiscovered country, herself. I, for one, would welcome a memoir by Tom Wolfe. As it is, I fear he has squandered his twilight on a sad, quixotic quest to indict a world he is no longer fit to judge.

Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver.