In his latest epic examination of the warring priorities of the old Wasp elite and the rising ethnic masses, Tom Wolfe takes his readers down south for a kaleidoscopic tour of Miami.
Back to Blood: Tom Wolfe's latest more of the same fascinating conflict
Back to Blood
Bango! In a puff of smoke, Tom Wolfe appears before us once more, a silver-haired man in a seersucker suit, wielding a silver-topped cane, bearing another dispatch from the new, wild America.
Every seven or 10 years for the last quarter of a century, Wolfe has emerged with another doorstopper of a novel directly pegged to American anxieties. He had once been a journalist who told stories like a novelist - in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff - now, he was a novelist who wrote like a journalist. Wolfe burrowed into his stories from the exterior: what model car did his characters drive? What shoes did they wear? How much did their houses cost? What music did they listen to? Indeed, his much-quoted Harper's Magazine essay Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast is our first clue to his literary project, serving as a combined manifesto and call to arms against the pale postmodernist retreat from literature as reportage.
The novel, Wolfe tells us, had once been Emile Zola journeying, in frock coat and hat, into the coal miners' pits to research his book Germinal. Zola spotted a horse pulling a sled, and wondered how the horse was transported up to the surface at the end of the day. He was not, the miners told him with a bitter laugh; he was brought down as a newborn colt, went blind from lack of exposure to the sun, and was brought back up only after he had been worked to death. "The Moment of the Horse in Germinal is one of the supreme moments in French literature - and it would have been impossible without that peculiar drudgery that Zola called documentation," argued Wolfe. "At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property."
Wolfe is our 19th-century realist triumphantly returned, or so he would have it; he has subtly played up the similarities even as he demurs the comparisons. "I don't know how anybody could be enthusiastic about Dickens," a campus intellectual sneers in his 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.
His fourth and latest novel, Back to Blood, leaves Dickens behind, preferring comparisons to another 19th-century titan with an encyclopedic grasp of the subtle gradations of class. The volumes of Balzac on the shelves in a class-conscious Haitian-American professor's art deco home provide a broad hint as to Wolfe's motivations, and his inclinations. "They didn't have the faintest awareness that they were part of a social hierarchy themselves," the professor notes of his students, and the same observation, extended outward until it takes in an entire city - an entire nation - is at the heart of Wolfe's literary project.
He is, to be sure, a snob, instinctively preferring the company of the well-heeled and well-attired, those whose breeding indicates a certain dignified hauteur. Wolfe is an aristocrat simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the lower depths, and it is this push and pull that sets his overstuffed, shambling novels into motion. Wolfe wants to find the grit of American experience, but without unnecessarily smudging his seersucker jacket.
But "American anxieties" is too broad, too all-inclusive a term for what Wolfe is worrying over. These are not novels about terrorism, about the ballooning national debt, about the degrading of civil liberties. Instead, they are illustrated reports on the ever-continuing crisis of American masculinity. The Wolfe hero - brawny, muscular, hard-charging, thirsty for power - crashes headlong into the arrayed forces of the new: the multiculturalism that tells him he is no longer the automatic inheritor of authority, the feminism that diminishes his status at home, the shifting political and cultural ground of contemporary American life.
Back to Blood emerges as a kaleidoscopic tour of Miami, another insiders' city guide in the vein of Wolfe's New York (The Bonfire of the Vanities) and Atlanta (A Man in Full). It is, like its predecessors, grand, unabashed entertainment, if less rich in its themes or assured in its material. Wolfe's cities are, above all, battlefields for clashing tribes. "Back to blood, mujahideen!" Wolfe offers as a summary of the mindset of 2012 Miamians. "They, like all people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds - back to blood!"
In these pages, the Cuban mayor does battle with the African-American chief of police; the Russian oligarch bowls over the Wasp newspaper editor with his generosity; the Haitian academic dreams of a high-society (white) future for his light-skinned daughter. The clash of civilisations is always about to wash up on our doorsteps, set to carry away the last vestiges of Anglo-Saxon civility. Setting the tone, Wolfe begins with a well-heeled white couple squabbling with a Cuban party girl over a parking spot. She vigorously chews them out for their presumption, her English pronunciation alone proof positive of a city transformed: "we een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!"
Wolfe novels are about status: who has it, who wants it, who lacks it, how to acquire it. Every human collective, from Wall Street to the police department to the jailhouse, is defined by the silent scuffle for position. "Vance, you know what Saint Ray is?" a character named Hoyt Thorpe asks a fellow fraternity brother in I Am Charlotte Simmons. "It's a MasterCard … for doing whatever you want … whatever you want." Saint Ray's unquestioned alpha status is a licence to excess for all its members. "And so who the hell are you?" a disgruntled partygoer asks Hoyt outside the fraternity house. "God, as far as this conversation is concerned," he responds. "I'm a Saint Ray."
Wolfe's preoccupations, as well as his weaknesses, are legion, and self-evident to any close reader who picks up more than one of his novels. Like Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe loves interpolating his own song lyrics into his stories, like this attempt at Spanglish rap in Back to Blood: "Caliente! Caliente, baby/Got plenty fuego in yo cajachina." Unlike Pynchon, Wolfe stinks at it.
Nevertheless, Wolfe is an aesthete of language. He learns how his characters act by channelling how they speak. He is forever gunning for the scoop on how insiders - bankers, prison inmates, police officers, fraternity members - speak to each other. "We'll scale in at 8.01, 8.02, 8.03, with the balance at 8.04," Sherman McCoy tells a colleague about a bond deal in Bonfire. "I'm ready to go 60 per cent of the issue."
These are geographically orientated novels, each taking the lay of a highly specific land - New York, Atlanta, the American university, Miami. He wants readers to know that New York cops in Bonfire render "how are you?" as "how wahya," and that when Charlie Croker, the teetering real-estate magnate of A Man in Full, says "morning," it sounds more like "moanin'". Wolfe is hungry to share that a boom box in 1980s New York is called a "Bronx attaché case", and that a hairstyle favoured among middle-aged Cuban-American women is called a "Hialeah crash helmet".
Wolfe is a creature of his research, and yet for all their disparate backdrops, each of his four novels tell essentially the same story. Back to Blood, in its title and its main thrust, emphasises a Wolfe motif lingering since The Bonfire of the Vanities: the warring priorities of the old Wasp elite and the rising ethnic masses.
Indefatigable Cuban cop Nestor Camacho and aspiring trophy wife Magdalena Otero and newspaper editor Edward T Topping IV and reporter John Smith are all positioned at familiar spots along the Wolfeian spectrum, ranging from old-money elite to striving working classes. Nestor rescues - or unjustly arrests, depending on your perspective - a Cuban defector at the outset of Back to Blood, and then, cast out from his insular community, seemingly has a hand in every high-profile case roiling Miami, from gang violence in local high schools to art forgery. Nestor and his ex-girlfriend Magdalena are revived versions of the title character of Charlotte Simmons, ambitious but naïve young people thrust into a world of intrigue and unblinking privilege.
The novelist's understanding that the observed world is composed of a near-infinite array of clashing perspectives has been the source of Wolfe's inspiration from the very start, from when he was out reporting from the queasy corners of American experience. "Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario," Wolfe observed of the LSD-zonked Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, "and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don't know that is what they're trapped by, their little script." It is the 10-car pileup of conflicting fantasies - those epics imprinted only on the inner eyelids of their creators, who also serve as star, inspiration, and auteur - that propels Wolfe's narrative perpetual-motion machines.
Each Wolfe novel balances competing perspectives: rich and striving and poor, high-class and low, male and female. There is always a natural aristocrat - always male, always well-muscled, usually an athlete - pulled back to earth by the levelling efforts of the mass; a beta male with ambitions of ascending the social ladder; and various representatives of the (usually minority) underclass, running backs or power forwards or wage slaves, possessing all the strength while lacking the grace of their social betters.
In each, a self-proclaimed Master of the Universe - bond salesman Sherman McCoy, real-estate baron Charlie Croker, frat-boy ubermensch Hoyt Thorpe - are undone by their own hubris and excessive self-regard, and various naïfs (among them Charlotte Simmons and Nestor Camacho) are given a breakneck introduction to the painfully high costs of living in the charmed inner circle of American life.
Hoyt is so blatantly self-absorbed as to gaze fondly at his own reflection in his first appearance in Charlotte Simmons, Narcissus reincarnated for the senior formal. Nestor is perpetually flexing in an imaginary mirror, admiring the ripple of his muscles splashed across the front page of the Miami Herald. Even at their most oafish and repellent - Sherman bullied by his mistress into fleeing a crime scene, Charlie playing plantation master to a staff of cowed African-American workers, Boyd wooing and then callously ditching the inexperienced Charlotte - Wolfe cannot muster the requisite levels of opprobrium, charmed as he is by their mastery of the game of life.
Wolfe's novels are also in love with the entrepreneurial spirit, finding in it a distinctly American wizardry no less worthy of note than that of the artist or writer. "We must find the courage, as a society, to invite — not allow but invite - genius into our lives," argues a museum curator introducing an art exhibit in A Man in Full, "no matter what troubling, upsetting, turbulent, defiant, rude, and unconventional forms it may take, for such, more often than not, is the face of greatness."
In 1987's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy and his mistress strike an African-American teenager with their car while hopelessly lost in the Bronx, setting off a racially polarised imbroglio. We occasionally hear from African-American characters - the boy's mother makes a brief, affecting appearance - but Wolfe, at this early stage, is only comfortable writing what he knows. "White Manhattan!" Wolfe exclaims on their reaching familiar ground, summarising an entire worldview ("If you want to live in New York," a friend tells Sherman, "you've got to insulate, insulate, insulate") in pithy words of exhaled relief.
Bonfire, Wolfe's best-loved novel, is also his most sheltered. We stand inside the fortress of white Manhattan gazing out, fearful of what may come. But Wolfe will subsequently learn how to write more skilfully about class, and to a lesser degree, race. Both A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons counterbalance their overwhelming interest in privilege with protagonists haunted by their lack of it.
Charlotte Simmons is at once transparently false - life at an elite American university is simply nothing like Wolfe describes - and alive with jittery, insecure energy. It is a novel of miniature Charlie Crokers and Sherman McCoys, anxiously scrabbling for position before they are even fully cognisant of what position they might be striving for. Wealth and power can be an absence, not just a presence, and it is not only those with everything who live in fear of having their hard-won place snatched away.
Characters are instinctually aware of their place in the hierarchy, instantly sizing each other up at a glance. A newspaper editor meets a cub reporter in Back to Blood, and is taken aback by his slightly superior pedigree: "We're both Yalies … and St Paul's trumps Hotchkiss!" (Mr Wolfe should know, being a Yalie himself.)
Another Yalie, Sherman McCoy of The Bonfire of the Vanities, coolly assesses the value of his education when pressed on an unfamiliar subject: "The only thing that had truly stuck in Sherman's mind about Christopher Marlowe, after nine years at Buckley, four years at St Paul's, and four years at Yale, was that you were, in fact, supposed to know who Christopher Marlowe was." Class is a secret handshake, known only to its initiates, invisible to all others.
"Do you really think this is your city any longer?" Wolfe asks readers rhetorically at the outset of Bonfire. "Open your eyes! The greatest city of the 20th century! Do you think money will keep it yours?" He proceeds to list, in lovingly horrified detail, the terrifying others beating on White Manhattan's door - "Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese and Afro-Americans!"
But what is a source of primal terror in "Bonfire" has become a mere fact of life in Back to Blood, which exists in a far more racially integrated, polyglot city than its predecessors. Race remains, for Wolfe, the great motivator of American life, but the gnawing fear of Bonfire and A Man in Full has receded with the tide, replaced by a more generalised distrust and ignorance. "White Miami" is only a small outpost of a Cuban metropolis, as Nestor realises: "Hialeah is Cuba. It's surrounded by more Cuba … all of Miami is ours, all of Greater Miami is ours. We occupy it." This, we may be slow to realise, is what progress looks like in America.
A literary accountant, Wolfe is hyper-attuned to the balance sheet of privilege. What, precisely, does it cost to maintain appearances? Professor Lantier, in Back to Blood, worries over his US$486,000 (Dh1.7 million) mortgage on his jewel-box home, its gracious charms not entirely justifying its staggering cost. There is the $270,000 rug gracing the floor of Charlie Croker's enormous white elephant of an office tower in A Man in Full, far beyond the ken of mere mortals without their names on skyscrapers, but there is also the car and driver hired to shuttle the fiscally strapped Sherman McCoy and his wife to a dinner party in Bonfire: "$197.20 or $246.50, depending on whether they were charged for four or five hours in all."
The little numbers add up. Wolfe penetrates beyond that initial eighth of an inch by sympathetically imagining the panic of financial free fall. Having done so for his tottering Masters of the Universe, Wolfe is able to translate the sensation into terms more relevant to his working-class characters. Conrad Hensley of A Man in Full (still Wolfe's best novel), laid off from a job at Croker Global Foods, blows an interview for a typing job (in a superb touch, his muscular hands have swelled from his job in the Croker freezers, too large now for the dainty keyboard), and emerges on the street to discover his car being towed.
"In his pocket he had five twenty-dollar bills, a five, and three ones. The bills, thank God, would be just enough to retrieve the car. According to the meter maid, the fine for parking in a red zone was $30, and the towing fee was another $77. But right now he needed to change one of the dollar bills and get a quarter. But where?"
Wolfe is ultimately torn between celebrating native-born American panache and know-how, and reflecting the changed circumstances of a world where initiative takes a back seat to luck and class. (Is this Steve Jobs' world, or Kim Kardashian's?) We read Balzac today as a channel for the liberalising energies of 19th-century France, but the man himself was a conservative royalist, enamoured of a vanished order nowhere to be found in the furiously moulting society reflected in his La Comédie humaine. Wolfe is a conservative royalist as well, enamoured of a vanishing order undone by creeping egalitarianism and the comically grotesque overreach of the elites - the real-world equivalents of his Charlie Croker and Sherman McCoy.
But like Balzac, Wolfe is too honest a journalist to warp his literary reportage to reflect his political views. And so his novels catch intimations of future convulsions, like A Man in Full gesturing at subprime-mortgage frenzies still to come: "In the 1980s Prudent hadn't stood a chance; nor in the late 1990s. The boom was on, and the banking business had caught fire, and a wonderful giddy madness was in the air." Wolfe instinctually favours the power-wielding elite over the crass masses. Sherman McCoy, entitled monster though he is, is still preferable to the bluntly wielded class warfare of Rev Reginald Bacon.
Each of Wolfe's four novels seems to end hastily, unexpectedly, as if the author had been called away to an emergency board meeting, and only had the time to jot down the outline for a conclusion. What they reflect, as much as the limitations of Wolfe's talent for plotting, is his unconscious preference for chaos to order. Wolfe is forever righting a canted frame, but he disdains as a storyteller what he favours as a social planner. Order is boring. The books end abruptly because, much as he might privately prefer the Wasp civilisation he perceives as being under threat, Wolfe innately understands its aesthetic inferiority to the hybrid, mosaic society his books depict. Wolfe is no liberal; his vision of the world is crabbed and often cranky. But in his instinctual preference for the polyglot to the insular, the broad to the narrow, he is perhaps the emblematic writer of the Age of Obama.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.