Monday, February 4, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“BACK TO BLOOD” by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape / Random House, $NZ37:99)
Whatever happened to Tom Wolfe, that funny little man who affects a white suit and hat? Born in 1931, he’ll be 82 next birthday. So he clearly isn’t any longer the sprightly “new journalist” who amused us as teenagers in the 1960s and 70s with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. These were books which thumbed their noses at inane pop culture, ridiculed the fashion for recreational drug-taking, and deflated the pretensions and trendy concerns of the liberal part of the American rich. Wolfe got away with such unfashionable attitudes because his writing itself was so fresh and nimble.
Nor is Wolfe any longer the earnest, celebratory chap who wrote The Right Stuff, a rousing hymn of praise to the U.S. of A.’s early space programme. Tom Wolfe has earned his place as a witty, waspish, conservative journalist, buoyed by his ability to coin phrases that have become cultural shorthand (“radical chic” and “the right stuff” among them).
But in the last couple of decades, he’s taken it into his head to write novels. Big novels with big casts of characters and with a tendency to batter, wallop and bruise their readers with his satire. Novels that cover a broad social scene. I cannot comment on his I Am Charlotte Simmons, because I haven’t read it (apparently it’s an attack on the destructive nature of current sexual mores). But I have read The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which looks at the ethnic and cultural mix that is New York. And I have read A Man in Full (1998), which looks at the ethnic and cultural mix that is Atlanta. And now we have Back to Blood, which looks at the ethnic and cultural mix that is Miami. All of them are doorstoppers. Back to Blood comes in at 700 pages.
I am not being sardonic in noting them thus. I have been amused by, and enjoyed, some of Wolfe’s novels, and looking back at the newspaper review I wrote of A Man in Full when it first appeared, I see I was quite enthusiastic about it. But for good or ill, the Wolfe novelistic template is now quite firmly established and may be getting rather tired. Wolfe homes in on a major American city, researches its fads, fashions and demographics, and then creates a plot that brings ethnic or cultural communities into conflict – or at least shows how little they really see one another’s viewpoint. Along the way, varieties of modishness are mocked, intellectuals are ticked off for pandering to the herd, and there are detailed descriptions of neighbourhoods and eateries and museums and other establishments, to display how the different communities behave en masse. The list-making, physical-detail-noting journalist is in cahoots with the novelist, which isn’t always a bad thing. (Wolfe claims one of his heroes is Zola, who sometimes used similar techniques).
But the main mechanism of Wolfe’s plots is always the irreducible difference between racial communities. He is the anti-“melting pot” satirist of America, constantly telling us that no government programme, do-gooding liberal scheme or welfare system will ever prevent ethnic groups from thinking of themselves as something separate from, and possibly inimical to, other American citizens.
The theme is sounded early in Back to Blood when a crotchety WASP newspaper editor reflects on Miami’s different clans in the passage that gives the novel its title:
“Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody has to believe in something. It would be intolerable – you couldn’t stand it – to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.’ But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it? So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds – Back to blood!” (Pg.22)
According to Wolfe, this perspective is even more evident in Miami because its different ethnic clans are recent arrivals. Much later in the novel, a Cuban mayor ticks off a black police chief with these words:
“Cy, I want to tell you a couple of things about this city. These are things you probably already know, but sometimes it helps to hear them out loud…. Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell – in the world – whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants… recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years… and that’s a hell of a thing when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you – I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.’ ” (Pg.424)
And this tends to be Wolfe’s own view.
Plot: Nestor Comacho, an American-born Cuban cop, manages to carry a Cuban refugee down from the very tall mast of a yacht where he is perching, and deliver him into the hands of immigration officials. For this feat he is hailed as a hero in Miami’s Anglo press. But Miami’s Cuban press see him as a traitor to the race, because he has prevented a Cuban refugee from getting the automatic residency he would have won, had he made it to the shore. Later, the same Nestor Comacho arrests a thuggish black drug-dealer, and again is hailed as a hero by his fellow cops. But in the arrest he was filmed hurling racial insults at the criminal. The clip features on Youtube and in no time he is being denounced as a racist bigot who hates African-Americans. Big repercussions follow in both media and city government; and the divide between Cuban-Americans and African-Americans is revealed.
Running alongside this are the adventures of Nestor’s former girlfriend Magdalena as she endures being nurse to a perverted psychiatrist, and then mistress to a Russian gangster running a big art scam from Miami’s growing Russian enclave.
It is hard to take seriously the characterization of these two Candide-like people – Nestor going, wide-eyed, from hero to villain to hero; Magdalena by turns a rampant nymphomaniac on the make and a very moral girl deploring the corruption around her, changing whenever it suits Wolfe’s plot.
Wolfe revisits here many of the things he has targeted in his other novels. The dumbing-down of university courses (especially in the humanities) to accommodate an ethnic quota. Meaningless sex - he goes over the top with an orgy scene at a regatta, and later repeats the process as he explores a strip club which doubles as a brothel. Trendy psychiatric treatments – in this case a shrink who treats “pornography addiction” but laughs at his patients behind their backs and secretly salivates over the same things that turn them on. At one point (pp.559 ff) a cynical Russian describes psychotherapists as con-men who live by making their patients dependent on them, a view that Wolfe apparently endorses. Wolfe also takes pot-shots at the sheer crassness of the social scene, Russian gangsterism, the artificial and arranged “reality” of “reality television”, and the type of baying hysteria that can be whipped up by Youtube.
Art is one of Wolfe’s obsessions, so he also engages with the way pornography has corrupted art; the way art has become a commodity for the rich, who are more interested in investment than in anything else; and therefore the way the leisure classes are conned into seeing all manner of trash as art. Witness Candide-Nestor at an art-gallery ruminating, with Wolfe’s obvious approval:
“What was it with all these reverent voices?....as if the [art gallery] were a church or a chapel. There must have been sixty or seventy people in the two rooms. They huddled reverently before this painting and that painting, the faithful did, and they communed…. Communed with what?... Wassily Kandinsky’s ascendant soul?... or with the Art itself, Art the All-in-One?... it beat Nestor… These people treated art like a religion. The difference was that you could get away with joking about religion… You only had to thin of all the ways people played with the Lord, the Saviour, Heaven, Hell, the Outer Darkness, Satan, the Choirs of Angels, Purgatory, the Messiah, Creeping Jesus…. For humorous effect… In fact, there were plenty of people who wouldn’t feel comfortable using them seriously… whereas with Art you didn’t dare make fun of it… it was serious stuff… if you went around making would-be funny remarks…. obviously you were a paluro…. A simpleton…a meathead unable to detect the self-demeaning clumsiness of your sacrilege…” (Pg.637)
I suppose I can applaud some of Wolfe’s satire and the targets he chooses to demolish, but there are moments when he comes perilously close to old-fart-ism. Is it any accident that the novel begins with a newspaper editor outraged that somebody younger steals his parking space? Surely this is a scene that will resonate most with somebody whose arteries are hardening. And what about the frequent explicit anatomical descriptions of sexually-attractive young women? I know Wolfe is critical of sexual attitudes, sex commodified, sex debased, sex as public display; so he would probably justify these descriptions as part of his over-all satire. But they do usually come across as gratuitous teases for the reader.
One very subsidiary theme is false charity – i.e. good works carried out by the wealthy as a means of showing off their bounty. Of a modish professor’s daughter, Wolfe writes:
“She was at the age, twenty-one, when a girl’s heart is filled to the brim with charity and love for the little people. She was still too young and unsophisticated to be told that her South Beach Outreach pity for the poor was actually a luxury for someone like her. It meant that her family had enough money an standing to be able to afford Good Works.” (Pg.179)
This is very much Wolfe revisiting Radical Chic from forty-plus years ago, when he ridiculed the fashionable rich for supporting radical causes simply to gain social cachet. But at some point one has to wonder whether Wolfe is shooting the wrong target. Is there any word in any of his work in praise of charity or good works per se? Nope. Essentially he sees the charitable as either fools or poseurs; and while he is doubtless accurate in terms of the limited social scene he depicts, this still come across as somebody finding excuses to damn all good works. It’s a rather comfortable sort of satire for well-off people who don’t want to have to share their wealth. The well-off people probably include the novelist who, according to news reports, received a publishers’ advance of some millions of dollars to write Back to Blood.
I really take the same view of Wolfe’s overriding theme of incompatible ethnic communities. Yes, it’s very funny indeed that, in a multi-ethnic society, euphemisms are often used in public to paper over the realities of race relations. But satire which focuses on this is really the satire of an Anglo annoyed that society does now have to be pluralist and accommodate many different peoples.
I give Wolfe one major point. He is readable and it is easy to whizz through his 700 pages. But, boy, does he like to OVERUSE CAPITAL LETTERS and SHOUT AT US with many EXCLAMATION POINTS when he fears we might fall asleep!!!!!!