Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown, 720 pp., $30)
Tom Wolfe long ago declared a preference for the great, teeming, socially panoramic novels of the 19th century — in which a plot of ambition and scandal brings together a rich variety of characters from the overclass, the underclass, and the classes in between — over the novel of internal reflection and exquisite sensibility where what little happens is of great significance for a particular examined life. This preference for Dickens over Virginia Woolf, so to speak, or for Trollope over Henry James, is a very scandalous one, because it is probably shared by most readers. That more or less ensures that it will be viewed with suspicion, if not distaste, by most critics.
Mr. Wolfe, moreover, has compounded this offense of taste by actually writing (by my estimation) at least three great social novels: The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and now Back to Blood. The main character in all of these novels is, of course, America itself, whose energy and disarray provide all the other characters with their dreams and nightmares. Like any other character, however, Tom Wolfe’s America is subject to change and decay, even perhaps to dissolution. And in Back to Blood that ominous possibility is beginning to seem possible.