Tom Wolfe – Back to Blood – is he right that status rules human behaviour?

Let me start these thoughts by saying that there have been few times when reading a novel that I have been so excited, so dazzled, so full of amazed awe as when I started reading “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Here was something that was extraordinarily alive, fascinating, penetrating, deadly accurate, humorous, dynamic etc etc. I hadn’t been to New York then, but I had the impression of really being taken right into a world – the court lawyers, struggling with a ridiculous workload, the lawyer sitting on the subway, intent on projecting strength; the black American preacher with his spellbinding elocution and smarts; a mayor standing up and facing the callous, ravenous press. It all seemed brilliant to me – and I don’t take that back at all, even though I haven’t returned to read Bonfire of the Vanities. He seemed to me, and still does, one of the finest writers of his generation – somebody who knew people, what was going on – who’d actually seen it – and researched it himself – famously standing and observing what he was going to write about in his white suit.

He was so smart, and so perspicacious he was scary – you couldn’t outsmart him, second-guess him. That was how I felt. And what breadth and penetration in that novel! – from the underworld, cops on the beat – to the financial masters of the universe, and the absurd world of modern artistic events. He’s always been pretty good at that – and usually very funny. I still remember “Huck Thigg” the designer from Bonfire.  And his new novel, Back to Blood has some moments – actually it spends (too much) time on modern art – but the “defucked” scene in which a somewhat ageing conceptual artist pulls sausage like objects out of her vagina is a pretty good scene.

My God he is good at the “scene”- I think of two from A Man in Full – possibly one of his best novels – when the main character goes to try to quell a rampant stallion, despite his gimpy knee – and the same character being stripped down and humiliated by a merciless financial investigator. Wolfe has a marvelous ability to take a motif and play with it – an excellent case is “saddle bags”  – the signs of sweat that appear on financial investigator’s victims’ clothing if he’s done his job well, from A Man in Full.

Through all this, and increasingly, I’ve felt that Tom Wolfe has very little compassion for almost all his characters and has a very dark view of human beings and their motivations. As a very spiteful review of his latest novel, in the NY Review of Books, says, he focuses above all on the perceived obsession of human beings with status. I can’t remember the exact reference, but he was influenced at Yale by the theories on this by a social psychologist (or some such) when he was a student.

In Back to Blood the disenchantment, the emphasis on status obsession, is even more virulent than ever – to the book’s detriment unfortunately. The central theory is that, in a confusing new world, where many of the traditional relationships have broken down, people are reverting to their ethnicity for their identity – hence “back to blood” – and that that is the determining factor in human relations. I just don’t agree with that. Of course, status and ethnic identity are hugely important to everyone, but they aren’t the only or necessarily the most important things that drive people – people are also driven by love, idealism, generosity, compassion, selflessness too. Just look at people who you know. And aren’t there vast and numerous examples of cooperation – growing cooperation – between people of different cultures and ethnicities – not least because those different cultures simply have to deal with each other – do business, trade, make political decisions, manage life. And overall human violence, according to Steven Pinker, has been on a descending slope for several millennia.

One example that Wolfe provides of status obsession, hammered endlessly, absurdly so, is the lack of linguistic knowledge of the young Cuban woman Magdalena who is a main character – eg

“Not that Magdalena knew the terms extra-environmental vision and astral projection, but these were the two main components of the otherworldly exhilaration”

The writer refers to this again and again in Magdalena’s consciousness, beyond any sense of realism – she experiences this with virtually every person she meets.

Nestor the policeman obsesses over his chances of rising in the police force – and resentment at how the “Americanos” have positions of authority in the force over Cubans. The psychiatrist is obsessed with social advancement and with getting admitted to the choicest clubs, restaurants, events, islands etc etc The billionaires who gather for an art event in Miami literally jostle and push each other as they struggle to get in first to buy avant-garde paintings, that they have no understanding or liking for, so that they can make more money and appear superior to their rivals. You get the idea – and the idea is rammed down your throat constantly.

The other characteristic of Wolfe’s novels is the jaundiced observation of events – especially events involving human beings partying together, eating together, drinking together, watching art, celebrating.  And when I read his description of these events – entertaining and sharply observed as they are – especially in this novel, I can’t help but remembering the white-suited novelist standing, or sitting in a corner – not taking part, but looking on. And, trite though it sounds, I feel that Wolfe is consumed by the feelings that most of us have when we observe or pass a party from the outside, looking in at the window – we resent it, we think that people make a fool of themselves, feel melancholy and alone, depressed about people, their noise and silliness. I think this spirit infuses much of the writing.

And back to the status thing. Many times it’s as if Wolfe is letting us, the reader, in on the ride – Magdalena fails to know what yet another word means, yet we know as the reader – we are part of the knowing, superior club that poor Magdalena is excluded from. And whose is this obsession over status really? My suspicion is that it’s Tom Wolfe’s. See this reflection by Nestor Camacho, the main character, a Cuban cop. We have suggestions that the Latino community may be all but dominating Miami – but then, he thinks this:

“But somewhere in our hearts we all know we’re really nothing but a sort of Cuban free port. All the real power, all the real money, all the real excitement, all the glamour, is the americanos’… and now I realize that you’ve always wanted in on that… ”

And here’s my suspicion again: all these ethnic groups ultimately aspire to what the “Americanos” have, according to Wolfe. In other words, the white, professional, more affluent Americans are top of the pile – ie “us” – those of his readers who, like him, are white, affluent and middle class. Isn’t there something suggestive, seductive, fixated about that – damn it, in the end, “we” have what everyone else wants. We know the words that some people don’t. Even if it’s bullshit, we know the codes – and other people are always striving to get it. Maybe it’s under threat, but damnit, we still have it.

I think these are the driving forces behind this novel. It’s still brilliantly dynamic, interesting, has great breadth, and is at times very funny – take this little aside:

“Nestor and the Sergeant were parked in an unmarked car, a three-year-old Ford Assist. It was hard to come up with an ugly design for a two-door car, but Ford had pulled it off.”

But, my enjoyment, my dazzle, with this novel was considerably less than with Bonfire and A Man in Full. Is it because it’s a worse novel?, or have I now “seen through” Wolfe and if I go back to the others will I be disillusioned? I’m not sure. I think it’s mainly that it isn’t quite as well written. Despite some uneasiness at Wolfe’s lack of compassion and his deeply negative view of the human race, those earlier books were so brilliant and energetic, I couldn’t help but be swept along.

Despite all of this, I think he’s still a great writer – one of the most distinctive of his time. He’s now in his 80s. Perhaps this is his last novel – they tend to take a good five years of more each. It will be a pity if this really is his last.

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