Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood & A Little Bit About Ken Kesey

Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a  chronicle of his travels with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their famous bus trip across the country in the 1960s, when they all took a lot of acid (except for Wolfe).  He is an exceptional writer of New Journalism and a good novelist.


Did I get Ken’s autograph, or was it his brother’s?

I am a fan of Ken Kesey, so of course I like Wolfe’s Kool-Aid.  I am such a fan that in 1997 I got Kesey’s autograph, or at least I THINK it’s his autograph, during Kesey’s fiftieth anniversary bus tour with the Merry Pranksters.  The bus was roped off, and we could file by and look at it, and occasionally somebody like Mountain Woman would get out and walk around.  Then I saw Ken Kesey, and I did a groupie thing that I can promise you I’ve never done before or since:  I slipped under the rope to get my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest autographed.  He said, “Oh, no, I’m his brother; Ken is on the bus.” But I asked him to autograph my book anyway, because I have a sense of humor, and who knows if it was Kesey or not, because the brothers looked identical?    And then I got a reporter friend to get my book autographed by the REAL Ken Kesey.  But the whole thing looks like a scribble, so did I get his autograph or not?

Anyway, on to Tom Wolfe.

Some years back I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I did not enjoy it as much as my fellow book group members did.

Back to Blood by Tom WolfeBut I read his new novel, Back to Blood, and it is extremely entertaining, the kind of book you can inhale, though it is 703 pages (but the print is big).  His verbal pyrotechnics in the first half of the book dazzle, and though plot takes precedence later, the novel probably should have won some kind of award, though I haven’t the faintest idea what, since it seems to be a mix of fiction and (not quite) journalism.  Wolfe has won many awards, including the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Set in Miami, Wolfe’s book interweaves the stories of many colorful characters, including Nestor, a Cuban-American policeman who dramatically rescues a Cuban refugee from the 70-foot mast of a yacht; Magdalena, a beautiful Cuban-American psychiatric nurse who wears very little clothing; John Smith, a Yalie who works for the Miami Herald and breaks a story about art forgery that upsets his editor, Edward T. Topping IV;  Norman, a sex addiction psychiatrist who has sex addictions himself; a rich Russian who donated millions of dollars worth of paintings to the art museum; and Igor, an art forger.

Wolfe has a very good time with this book.  He seems to have interviewed everyone in Miami to write it.

The character I found most moving was Nestor, the cop.  You know cops:  they can be heroic and touchingly chivalrous, but also very weird.  I was once coerced into a cop car at midnight because I was JOGGING.  They insisted on driving me home, because the neighborhood was too “dangerous.”

Nestor is a hero, in a cop kind of way, but things keep going wrong for him.  A Cuban refugee scrambles onto a yacht and climbs up a 70-foot-mast.  If he is arrested on dry land he gets asylum, but on a boat he is still technically in the water and, if caught, will be sent back to Cuba.  Nestor is ordered to rescue him from the mast, so he hauls himself up hand over hand, as he has learned to do on a rope at the gym.

Nestor before the climb is thinking:

Now he was in for it, whether he could pull off this stunt or not.  He sized up the mast.  He tilted his head up and looked straight up.  Way…way…way up there–Jesus!  The sun was burning up his eyeballs, darkest extremos or no darkest extremos!  He had begun to sweat…wind or no wind!  Chirst, it was hot out here, grilling out on the deck of a schooner in the middle of Biscayne Bay.  The man on top of the mast looked just about he size and color and shapelessness of one of those turd-brown vinyl garbage bags.  He was still twisting and lurching about…way up there.”

Traffic stops on the bridge near the mast, and all the Cubans get out of their cars and boo Nestor.  Nestor is shunned by his family and the Cuban-American community because the refugee was turned over to the Coast Guard (not Nestor’s doing) and will be deported, though he is a hero in the Miami Herald.

The same nightmarish kind of misunderstanding occurs again and again regarding intrepid, competent, if not too brainy, Nestor.  When he and another officer bust a crack house, someone with a cell phone tapes the scene and uploads an edited version on YouTube that makes them look like racists beating up a black man at random.  The drug dealer has actually given them a lot of trouble.

I was very sympathetic to Nestor, a muscular cop who does his job a little TOO well.  Wolfe makes Nestor the most sympathetic character in the book.

Other characters fare less well with me.  Magdalena doesn’t seem real–was there ever such a mindless woman?  Well, of course.   She dresses in bustiers and very short skirts, suggested by her roommate, a “sophisticated” Peruvian, and other outfits I suppose women do wear in Miami.  Magdalena, despite her penchant for slutty fashions, is very prim, and though she will do anything in bed with rich men, she is shocked by the sexual obsessions of her boss and boyfriend, Norman, the sex addiction psychiatrist, and later by the insensitivity of a wealthy Russian art collector.

There are few intelligent women characters.

But Wolfe very sharply illustrates the similarities between reporters and police.  John Smith, the aggressive reporter who looks like a blond wimp, shows his strengths when he and Nestor work together on an art forgery case ( informally, because Nestor’s  badge has  temporarily been taken away after the YouTube video).  The two thrive on being undercover.  At a strip club where Igor, the forger, hangs out, Nestor knows exactly how to act, and later at Igor’s studio in an assisted living facility where Igor has a studio, John takes charge and Nestor learns about true double-dealing.

Wolfe’s style is exuberant but sometimes glib;  there are lots of ellipses…lots of exclamation points….lots of noises like “Smack,”  “Beep,” and  ” Click!”

This book is sharply observed, humorous, and addictive.  The vividness is sometimes exhausting, though.

But I love his references to Balzac and Gogol–they’re the names of clubs and restaurants–and I think he is trying to write “Balzac-ian) realism, mixed with the bizarre.

It is vintage Tom Wolfe, a terrific read, and I do recommend it.  It is really a lot of fun.