This is the fifth book I’ve read by Tom Wolfe. His journalistic style plus stories make for great page turners. Often his books explore class, wealth, and race—quite successfully. Back to Blood explored all those and more. I’m always a little weary when a white man writes about race and tend to read with breath held. I sometimes suspect that he is “stepping back and watching and reporting on those outside his world.” Sort of like the narrator on a nature program. The other three books of his that I read, The Bonfire of the Vanities, I am Charlotte Simmons, and A Man in Full all made sense and addressed people, dialect, and intentions with respect. In Back to Blood, most of it was good, almost all of it seemed quite well thought out and reasoned, but there was a character that just didn’t make sense to me. The lovely, intelligent, first generation Cuban American, Magdalena. She’s a nurse who ends up involved in the art world, specifically Art Basel of Miami.
It would be safe to assume that Magdalena is smart, since she is a nurse and works for a successful psychiatrist. Wolfe portrays Magdalena as a sexpot who is searching for a powerful successful boyfriend that she can show off. That part I can buy and don’t find unreasonable or insulting as some women do look for upward mobility in a mate. This nurse enters the art world and is completely clueless. That too I can buy. I work in a contemporary art museum and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s an incomprehensible amount of things to know about art. I had never heard of Art Basel until a few years ago, but I live in San Francisco, and I’m not a collector, nor a curator. It seems odd to me that this woman who lives in Miami would never have heard of Art Basel. (It’s the same as my not being involved in the tech industry but I’m aware of all the large-scale conferences that inundate San Francisco—I think she would know.)
There are a few words that Magdalena doesn’t understand. And these aren’t art-specific words, these are quite everyday words that I can’t imagine a nurse who was reared in America wouldn’t know. She is bilingual, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that these are everyday words. It feels a little unsettling that Wolfe creates this character that does not know these words. I cannot believe it. I don’t understand how this strong-willed, ambitious woman who finished college and went on to nursing school, and was so successful at the hospital that she was hand selected by a successful psychiatrist to help him didn’t know these words.
The thing with Magdalena is she is quite likeable: Wolfe has created someone I like and respect, so I find it strange that she can be made stupid by not understanding certain phrases or words. Words like “monograph” (how did she get through her prerequisite art class?) and “treatise” (158) “panache” (244) and “quid pro quo” (248). These are all common words that one would know if having grown up in the US, gone to college, and then nursing school. This biased character description falls short of what I expect from a well-respected author. I understand the author’s trope of having a naive character narrate the story. But there are so many other routes he could have taken to provide a naive point of view.
I’ve read four books in total by Tom Wolfe, this is his weakest and most problematic. If I had begun with this book first, I would never have picked up his other three. And at this point, I question whether or not I read his other books as closely as I thought. . .
Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2012.