The first person thanked in the acknowledgments of Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood (Little, Brown and Company, 720 pp., $30), a doorstop set in Miami, is that city’s former mayor, Manny Diaz. The second is the former police chief. There are also “Miami’s maker of yachts that look like X-15s and don’t so much sail as lift off” and the “developers and engines of the Wynwood art district, Miami’s equivalent of New York’s Chelsea.” The book hasn’t yet begun, and already the reader has been plunged into a sea of boldface names.
The only subject Tom Wolfe has ever been interested in is status. Even as a writer of nonfiction: his 1965 piece about The New Yorker was obsessed with staff writers’ relative proximity to editor William Shawn; his profile of Phil Spector, from 1964, is more explicit: “Status!” he writes. “What is his status?” And his much-discussed essay from 2000 on John Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike, his literary contemporaries, drives the obsession home: “On second thought, I have to mention that cover of Time,” he writes about his own public image. “[T]here I was, not only on the cover, but on the cover wearing a white double-breasted suit and vest and a white homburg …” He goes on.
The Time cover, from 1998, was to promote the second of his four novels, A Man in Full. As a writer of fiction, Mr. Wolfe is notable for both his neck-vein-bursting enthusiasm and his on-the-scene reporting, traveling to whatever American milieu has captured his fancy that year. But the method by which he obtains information is governed by the sort of access available only to a man who appears on the cover of Time in a double-breasted white suit. The sort of access Mr. Wolfe was afforded in researching Back to Blood, in the company of Miami’s brightest stars and biggest civic boosters, becomes clear early on in the novel. Every piece of information he’s gleaned in Miami, in New York (the subject of The Bonfire of the Vanities), in Atlanta (A Man in Full) and on a college campus in Pennsylvania (I Am Charlotte Simmons), has been in service of the self-evident thesis that in America, status is important.
In his vaunted hyperbolic style, Mr. Wolfe blows up details of consumption and lards each one with an exclamation point; a pixelated focus on the trappings of wealth serves as a stand-in for character development. He is either an author obsessed with exposing radical truths about American materialism or an author whose sympathies lie with those who have power, those he sets out to critique. Anyway, they’re more fun to write about.