BACK TO BLOOD
By Tom Wolfe
704 pp. Little, Brown And Company
By David Beilstein
TO disagree with literary maestro Martin Amis is unwise. The British novelist, recently adopted by America by way of Brooklyn, NY, is one of the great prose stylists of satirical elegance. Mr Amis’ campaign against cliché continues – burning brighter the more he is proven right by the turbulence of culture and of Western decline.
The strength of the modernist, as Amis is a nervous member, is, there are standards. The weakness of the modernist, conversely, is those standards hang unattached – mere human opinions. That disengaged nature, the perch upon which the modernist hangs mid-air, was the opening the post-modernist entered. Once the post-modernist entered the dance, jars of urine, poo-on-a-stick, would become competitive with the work of Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. This of course, is nonsense, but many post-modernists will argue the point. Interestingly enough, Wolfe’s Back To Blood depicts quite a bit of this parade; with interesting and conflicting success. Still, one can elaborate upon the master’s review of the Wolfeian oeuvre without defaulting into total error. In Mr Amis’ 2001 collection of literary criticism, The War Against Cliché, he wrote of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man In Full,
Tom Wolfe, with his bright architectural eye, writes so well about institutions that he forces you to compare him to his beloved Dickens. Dickens was a great visitor of institutions and no doubt he ‘researched’ his Marshalsea Prison, his Chancery, and so on. But he [Dickens] also dreamt them up, and reshaped them in the image of his own psyche, his own comic logic. That is perhaps why they have lasted and why Wolfe’s edifices look more trapped in time.
Mr Amis appears amiss how much the Wolfeian, Faustian universe is marked by the octogenarian’s southern-gothic imagination. There is no institution in existence – or that Wolfe has attempted to use as literary setting – naked of Mr Wolfe’s own persona. The teeming Gotham represented in his break out novel, The Bonfire of The Vanities, is of Wolfeian nocturnal dreams – the description reeking of the pioneering New Journalists’ observations and studious attention to detail. But these creations are universe’s approximating true localities and custom – created to fulfil a larger dramatic canvas in which to show off Wolfe’s own configurations of dramatic complexity.
Whether it is the peek-a-booing of Atlanta in A Man In Full and now Miami’s hot white sun licentiousness in Back To Blood – Wolfe’s psyche is engaged. Mr Wolfe has baffled the literary gatekeepers for a career. He has written essays on that sump; My Three Stooges attacked the grumpiness of John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving – all possessed of literary dudgeon that what Wolfe did was not really literature. It was journalism. Before that kerfuffle, the man with the white suit’s essay, Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast was a literary manifesto, a pious attempt at gathering a movement and propelling a semblance of literary pulchritude.
There was no movement, it seems. Mr Wolfe, 20 odd years later, is the sole member – a dashing one at that. But it was excuse enough to establish Mr Wolfe and set him apart, exciting fans and creating large book sales. Enough sales, it seems – goes the rumor – to snatch up a $7 million advance for Back To Blood.
I can’t keep the math straight mind you, but that rounds off to a little more than $10,000 smacks a page. You can, therefore, hear it!
:::::::::Lookit ‘em move! Count it! Cash! Look it roll in, – smell it, feel it; bathe in it! It’s actually green!:::::::::
I cannot help but think Mr Wolfe’s beastly manifesto has been as misunderstood as Ernest Hemingway’s old adage, “Write what you know” – as if the writer is not to educate his or her self in things unnatural to their environs. Old man Hemingway, I’m confident – never meant this; neither did Wolfe argue reporting techniques are the sum of fictional composition. This is an inaccurate depiction. Contrary to the tepid airs of literary snobs, Mr Wolfe seems to be quite clear: reporting techniques are never to be without the dross of literary royalty (imagination); of human norms and moods.
Back To Blood has taken a drubbing by critics. Perhaps, deserved, perhaps not. What is interesting is Wolfe’s sightseeing journey into 21st century Miami depicts a country unmoored from Orthodox religion, from custom and place; the characters gyrating through Back To Blood, detached, and as Shakespeare said, like “beasts.” Wavering from one extreme to the other. Some critics have pointed out whatever Wolfe saw in his reportage of Miami, he did not like it. At all. And Back To Blood is, says some, a judgment of sorts by a conservative novelist on a society eating itself. For this author, Back To Blood is better, more visually entertaining, than A Man In Full – miles better composed than I Am Charlotte Simmons – yet under performs the shear humanity of Bonfire of The Vanities. It is true, there is much Thackeray in Wolfe, and this tends to create a certain dramatic panacea – one where, well, few noble characters arrive on scene to give break to the hedonism and vanity of the atmosphere.
Tom Wolfe isn’t for the weak-hearted – he’s not for everyone.
But this is Wolfe’s imagination at work. I have always seen Wolfe’s winnowing everything down to status as somewhat impersonal; a missing of the bull’s-eye if you will. Sure, it does reflect the self-interest and duplicity starring in the human heart, but a surer way, it would seem, depicting the bane of human conflict finds sounder soil in Saint Paul’s summation in the Epistle to the Romans, chapters 1-3. This theological insight explains the mercurial motivation behind Wolfe’s status seeking galaxy of individuals – saints and sinners, alike. Or, maybe just sinners. But if Mr Amis is correct in his assessment Wolfe’s work is time-locked, it could be that status seeking alone, is not the best way to peel the human onion as it were.