Back to Blood — Tom Wolfe

The real problem with Back to Blood is that you’ve already read it, most notably in The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—and if you haven’t read those, you should start with them. Back to Blood has the same assortment of obsessions and interests: there is the child with an unusual name and an elite pedigree: “Last week he totally forgot to call the dean, the one with the rehabilitated harelip, at their son Fiver’s boarding school, Hotchkiss [. . .]” But does anyone still care about elite boarding schools? Does anyone still care about the Miami Herald other than the people who work there? The father of Fiver is the editor, and he thinks it is “one of the half-dozen-or-so most important newspapers in the United States” in an era when the era of newspapers has passed.

The Miami nightclub is named “Balzac’s,” after another Wolfe preoccupations. There is a prurient mention of girls who “were wearing denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris and the pants legs cut off up to. . . here . . .” Has anyone in the U.S. ever used the term mons veneris, outside of Tom Wolfe and medical schools? I think it appeared in I am Charlotte Simmons a couple of times too, and there it was even more improbable. And the word loins! In this case, “juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms.” I’ve heard loins described as loins before, but only by Tom Wolfe and the writers of the Bible. Someone born more recently than 1931 would use “pussy” if they wanted to be crude, “va jay jay” if they wanted to be hipster, or “vagina” if they wanted clinical directness. But not loins. No one but Tom Wolfe would use loins, and use it again and again.

Sometimes writers working out variations on ideas that iterate subtly book by book can work—Elmore Leonard is a good example. Others just feel like they’re repeating themselves. When I am Charlotte Simmons came out, I was in college and skipped class to read it, only to feel an increasing sense of disappointment with the wrongness of many scenes—like Charlotte feeling nervous about the cost of long distance calls. That was an anachronism. Most college students had free long distance by 2004. I would’ve let anyone who asked use my phone to call home. Or, for another example of reportorial wrongness, Charlotte gets a salvaged, pieced-together computer, like a salvaged car. By 2004, however, older but working computers were $25 on Craigslist, or outright given away by schools. These two examples are salient, but there were others, just as I am Charlotte Simmons repeated words, phrases, and ideas from Wolfe’s earlier books. It, and Back to Blood, repeatedly describe moments of cowardly prurience, with men likes wolves and women who didn’t want it or didn’t want to want it and submitted to it only reluctantly, like a female character from the 19th century and not at all like many of the contemporary women I know.

The period details in Back to Blood are wrong. Today, anyone cool would be driving a Tesla Roadster, or Fisker Karma, not a Ferrari 403; Ferraris might’ve been cool twenty years ago, but technology and culture have moved on. Then there’s the simply and wildly improbable: a French professor named Lantier thinks of his daughter that she wasn’t ready for “snobbery” because “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.” Someone exposed to live students every semester is unlikely to think of their hearts as “filled to the brim with charity and love” for much of anything, except perhaps alcohol, condoms, iPhones, verbing nouns, and obsessive Facebooking. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but familiarity is a great slayer of illusions like Lantier’s belief about the hearts of most 21-year-old girls.

Back to Blood isn’t a bad book, but it has the same but lesser strengths of the earlier novels, with the same but exaggerated weaknesses of them. We’re told, not shown, that “Mac was an exemplar of the genus WASP in a moral and cultural sense,” without knowing why, if at all, that’s important. We’re told a lot of things, most of them not especially new if we’re familiar with the Wolfe oeuvre.

There are clever moments, as when Magdalena, in a fight with her Spanish-speaking mother (or, in Wolfe-land, Mother), resorts “to the E-bomb: English.” It’s a moment of geriatric cruelty, since “Her mother had no idea what colloquially meant. Magdalena didn’t, either, until not all that many nights ago when Norman used it and explained it to her. Her mother might know hang and possibly even slang, but the hang of slang no doubt baffled her, and the expression clueless was guaranteed to make her look the way she did right now, which is to say, clueless.” It’s clever, and the kind of cleverness that makes the scene fresh and unusual. It’s also the kind of cleverness missing in repeated references to the mons verneris, or to loins, or to high-end private schools.

Wolfe also gets and has gotten for decades the weirdness and power of modern media; its spotlight is restless yet powerful, and it plays a tremendous role in Bonfire. In Back to Blood, Nestor Camacho, a Miami cop, rescues a refugee from the mast of a ship and is recorded doing it; consequently, he becomes momentarily famous, such that: “Even now, at the midnight hour, the sun shone ’round about him.” The analogizing of fame to light seems obvious, even necessary, and although I don’t want to probe its deeper properties here I like how Wolfe avoids the spotlight metaphor, much as I didn’t a few sentences ago. Wolfe uses metaphor in an almost 19th Century fashion, usually effectively.

He gets the way civic booster types think of the arts not as a thing in and of themselves, but as a checkbox; an editor at the Miami Herald thinks that “Urban planners all over the country were abuzz with this fuzzy idea that that every ‘world-class’ city—world class was another au courant term—must have a world class cultural destination. Cultural referred to the arts. . . in the form of a world-class art museum” {Wolfe “Blood”@111}. He’s right, of course, but right in a generic way, like people are right about love being like a rose. If you’ve read anything about urban planning, or cities (and I have), you won’t be surprised at the editor’s knowledge, which he probably picked up in the same places I did, and which says very little about him as a character, exception that he, like so many Wolfe characters, is an information and status receptacle more than he is a person with his own needs and desires.

The complaint expressed throughout this post is similar to but a bit different than James Woods’, which concerns how Wolfe’s characters tend to speak in similar or identical registers, despite coming from wildly different backgrounds. That isn’t necessarily a weakness, but the verisimilitude of the characters must be maintained in novels that portray such startlingly different people in a similar register; that’s what Bonfire of the Vanities does and what Back to Blood doesn’t, quite. The earlier novel also doesn’t feel reported even if it was reported; the latter does, in the same way I am Charlotte Simmons misses the college milieu in a thousand subtle ways. If you swing, it doesn’t matter whether you miss the ball by a millimeter or a meter. The scrim of realism is pierced and the novel doesn’t quite work.

Wood also says that “Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status.” But this isn’t quite true: Wolfe is interested in ordinary life when it’s touched by big events, or ordinary life when its inhabitants have a powerful yearning for something other than ordinary life. That yearning, that drive, can be fascinating. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with writing about extraordinary life, which can be as fascinating, “complex, contradictory, prismatic.” Wood obviously isn’t making this argument, and I doubt he would make it in the kind of caricature I’m making it here, but it’s easy to draw this kind of false lesson from the Back to Blood review. Almost every Wood review is a momentary master class in the novel as a genre, which is why so many writers and would-be writers attend so carefully to them, and why it’s worth appending this brief commentary to a review that in some ways is more useful and interesting than the impressively hyped novel being discussed.

Back to Blood is drawing on capital built up from Wolfe’s earlier novels, and overall it leaves a sense of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If another Wolfe novel appears, I don’t think I’m likely to be fooled again. There are better novels about the state of America—Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one—even if they don’t announce themselves as tomes about the state of America. Given how the voices of Back to Blood don’t quite work and the book-report function doesn’t quite work, there are probably better uses of one’s reading time.

The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood — Julie Salamon

By most accounts, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrible movie, and a not inconsiderable number of people think the same of the book. Consequently, reading Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood might seem like an exercise in shallow masochism, but the book isn’t and tracks both the making of movies and the formation of and interaction among small, hierarchical groups charged with an overarching goal containing innumerable amorphous steps that must be defined before they can even be executed. I wish I could phrase the preceding sentence in something like English instead of consultant-speak, but it nonetheless expresses a true idea about The Devil’s Candy, which is also the story of a cultural industry most people don’t understand, or understand poorly, and yet has an outsized impact on how people think and feel. Running through it like the Mississippi through the United States is money:

During [de Palma’s] twenty-five years in the business, he’d seen a lot of astute, intelligent boys like Schwab [the second-unit director] come and go. They knew everything there was to know about film but were too proud to sell themselves. So many of them never got it, that in the movie industry art was a product and the only way to succeed way to figure out how to move the merchandise.

The same sentiment is voiced again:

[Orson Welles’] films didn’t make money; he hadn’t been able to get a picture financed in town since he’d made “Touch of Evil” in 1957 [… at an American Film Institute (AFI) banquet,] Welles gave a thank-you speech that ended with a pitch for money.

Those who manage money well succeed, and those who don’t are thrown overboard; money is behind numerous decisions for good or ill, and the knowledge that tickets must sell inform, for example, racial issues in casting and the script. Decisions about who to cast hold the The Bonfire of the Vanities back as executives and others attempt to simultaneously pander and avoid controversy, entirely missing a central point of Wolf’s book—that the media conflagration around race is what feeds the bonfires of racial tension as well as the self-immolating media itself. Were The Bonfire of the Vanities book not set among high-financiers, The Devil’s Candy demonstrates that it could be set among Hollywood moguls, perhaps with scenes like the one depicted at the beginning of Chapter 6. It offers a heavily ironic tone that I won’t give away, but such metaphoric scenes appear throughout, showing the principals in the movie apparently unaware or unselfconscious of the art they try to strip mine, no matter how much they say they care about the environment. And the more they try, the worse it gets. As Salamon describes de Palma thinking, “Racial Balance. Racial balance! What was he, the ACLU?”

That’s not to say The Devil’s Candy is an angry, anti-political correctness screed: it isn’t, and its purpose is to reveal how decisions that seem laughably bad in retrospect can seem reasonable at the outset. Though I’m tempted to analogize to Iraq, I won’t save through paralipsis. The Devil’s Candy also shows the inherent tension between art and commerce, with movies being pulled toward the latter, which also means they’re more likely to try and blunt rough edges or pull their punches in hopes of winning the bet. Of one change from book to movie, Tom Wolfe observes:

You know, there is an etiquette, particularly on television—and in the movies too, I guess—which say it’s okay to raise the question of racial hostility only if somewhere toward the close of the action you produce an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who creates a higher synthesis and teaches everyone the error of their ways. As the drama ends, everyone heads off into a warmer sunset.

[…]

I was criticized for not doing that. But life is not like that. To me reality is extremely important in fiction as well as in nonfiction. I don’t think you can understand the human heart if you move from reality.

Incidentally, this is the same problem a self-indulgent movie like Crash has, and a property of the healing character like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. One very impressive, unusual aspect of the TV show Friday Night Lights is its ability to avoid the sermonizing Wolfe condemns; I was skeptical of the show, as I am of any TV show, and only picked up the DVDs after seeing it recommended by The New Yorker and then James Fallows. The publication and man, respectively, are not known for pulling their artistic punches the way Hollywood does. Read the articles at both links, which better describe how Friday Night Lights is the rare example of art transcending its medium—which The Bonfire of the Vanities movie apparently did not. Even the example above, which involved the casting of Morgan Freeman in lieu of a judge of Jewish descent, as in Wolfe’s book, brought other problems; de Palma thinks Morgan is unprepared thanks to stardom:

There was something about the money and the fame and the adulation that made them [stars] stop doing the boring work they did automatically when they were struggling. Everyone tells them they’re great, and they start to believe it.

It’s a system de Palma contributes to, and the sense of this movie being a manifestation of systems and incentives grows as The Devil’s Candy progresses. Notice that de Palma blames “money,” although it’s money that drives movies. And it’s a system that rewards those who can operate from within, although at some personal cost:

De Palma decided he had to try, and he approached the project [of winning back studio exec girlfriend Kathy Lingg]—his deliberate strategizing gave the courtship the feel of a project as much as a romance—with the force and logic he would apply to a movie he wanted to get going.

I’m not female, but if I were, I don’t think I’d want to be a de Palma project, especially considering how many of them end up as bloodbaths.

The making of The Bonfire of the Vanities says more about America and life than the movie itself. For example, Salamon writes:

The social stratification was the only certainty on a film set. The players were always different, but the status was constant. And almost everyone was angling for better status. The camera operator wanted to be cinematographer; the cinematographer wanted to direct. The secretaries wanted to be associate producers; the p.a.’s, the production assistants, wanted to be anything that wasn’t the lowest rung on the latter. The stand-ins wanted to act. Everyone was working on a script.

This tendency was apparently exacerbated by the book and the expectations surrounding it, as “the idea took hold that this particular movie could be the definitive vehicle of dreams, big enough and flashy enough to carry along a great many people—the stretch limo of hope and ambition.” It wasn’t, and the fault is better placed on those towards the top than those towards the bottom. Status is hard-gained and easily lost, and blame is also easy; of a test audience, de Palma thinks, “They didn’t have a clue.” Maybe not, but if you’re in mainstream cinema, you better be ready to sell—as he’d apparently forgotten when he thought he was making art. “Money didn’t seem to mean anything, and yet it meant everything,” means that it means everything.

The Devil’s Candy implies that money corrupts to some extent, but that everyone involved, including watchers, is complicit. Look at what the book calls “the emergence of infotainment as a regular feature on local news shows[, which] resulted in a complex symbiosis between the studios and the journalists who followed the film industry for television.” But if those journalists have become derelict in their duty as independent voices, it’s only because we, the people, keep watching them despite their questionable province, like eating foul sausages prior to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At one point, someone

designed his own diorama showing hyenas disemboweling a gazelle. He loved the juxtaposition of this image against the society crowd. “When you think about animals, and these people, you realize that’s what they are,” he said. “Beautifully dressed animals.”

Is he talking about the society Wolfe depicted in his novel, or could he also be talking about Hollywood, media celebrities, readers, and all of us? Such is the pleasure of The Devil’s Candy that it could be any or all of them.

The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood — Julie Salamon

By most accounts, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrible movie, and a not inconsiderable number of people think the same of the book. Consequently, reading Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood might seem like an exercise in shallow masochism, but the book isn’t and tracks both the making of movies and the formation of and interaction among small, hierarchical groups charged with an overarching goal containing innumerable amorphous steps that must be defined before they can even be executed. I wish I could phrase the preceding sentence in something like English instead of consultant-speak, but it nonetheless expresses a true idea about The Devil’s Candy, which is also the story of a cultural industry most people don’t understand, or understand poorly, and yet has an outsized impact on how people think and feel. Running through it like the Mississippi through the United States is money:

During [de Palma’s] twenty-five years in the business, he’d seen a lot of astute, intelligent boys like Schwab [the second-unit director] come and go. They knew everything there was to know about film but were too proud to sell themselves. So many of them never got it, that in the movie industry art was a product and the only way to succeed way to figure out how to move the merchandise.

The same sentiment is voiced again:

[Orson Welles’] films didn’t make money; he hadn’t been able to get a picture financed in town since he’d made “Touch of Evil” in 1957 [… at an American Film Institute (AFI) banquet,] Welles gave a thank-you speech that ended with a pitch for money.

Those who manage money well succeed, and those who don’t are thrown overboard; money is behind numerous decisions for good or ill, and the knowledge that tickets must sell inform, for example, racial issues in casting and the script. Decisions about who to cast hold the The Bonfire of the Vanities back as executives and others attempt to simultaneously pander and avoid controversy, entirely missing a central point of Wolf’s book—that the media conflagration around race is what feeds the bonfires of racial tension as well as the self-immolating media itself. Were The Bonfire of the Vanities book not set among high-financiers, The Devil’s Candy demonstrates that it could be set among Hollywood moguls, perhaps with scenes like the one depicted at the beginning of Chapter 6. It offers a heavily ironic tone that I won’t give away, but such metaphoric scenes appear throughout, showing the principals in the movie apparently unaware or unselfconscious of the art they try to strip mine, no matter how much they say they care about the environment. And the more they try, the worse it gets. As Salamon describes de Palma thinking, “Racial Balance. Racial balance! What was he, the ACLU?”

That’s not to say The Devil’s Candy is an angry, anti-political correctness screed: it isn’t, and its purpose is to reveal how decisions that seem laughably bad in retrospect can seem reasonable at the outset. Though I’m tempted to analogize to Iraq, I won’t save through paralipsis. The Devil’s Candy also shows the inherent tension between art and commerce, with movies being pulled toward the latter, which also means they’re more likely to try and blunt rough edges or pull their punches in hopes of winning the bet. Of one change from book to movie, Tom Wolfe observes:

You know, there is an etiquette, particularly on television—and in the movies too, I guess—which say it’s okay to raise the question of racial hostility only if somewhere toward the close of the action you produce an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who creates a higher synthesis and teaches everyone the error of their ways. As the drama ends, everyone heads off into a warmer sunset.

[…]

I was criticized for not doing that. But life is not like that. To me reality is extremely important in fiction as well as in nonfiction. I don’t think you can understand the human heart if you move from reality.

Incidentally, this is the same problem a self-indulgent movie like Crash has, and a property of the healing character like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. One very impressive, unusual aspect of the TV show Friday Night Lights is its ability to avoid the sermonizing Wolfe condemns; I was skeptical of the show, as I am of any TV show, and only picked up the DVDs after seeing it recommended by The New Yorker and then James Fallows. The publication and man, respectively, are not known for pulling their artistic punches the way Hollywood does. Read the articles at both links, which better describe how Friday Night Lights is the rare example of art transcending its medium—which The Bonfire of the Vanities movie apparently did not. Even the example above, which involved the casting of Morgan Freeman in lieu of a judge of Jewish descent, as in Wolfe’s book, brought other problems; de Palma thinks Morgan is unprepared thanks to stardom:

There was something about the money and the fame and the adulation that made them [stars] stop doing the boring work they did automatically when they were struggling. Everyone tells them they’re great, and they start to believe it.

It’s a system de Palma contributes to, and the sense of this movie being a manifestation of systems and incentives grows as The Devil’s Candy progresses. Notice that de Palma blames “money,” although it’s money that drives movies. And it’s a system that rewards those who can operate from within, although at some personal cost:

De Palma decided he had to try, and he approached the project [of winning back studio exec girlfriend Kathy Lingg]—his deliberate strategizing gave the courtship the feel of a project as much as a romance—with the force and logic he would apply to a movie he wanted to get going.

I’m not female, but if I were, I don’t think I’d want to be a de Palma project, especially considering how many of them end up as bloodbaths.

The making of The Bonfire of the Vanities says more about America and life than the movie itself. For example, Salamon writes:

The social stratification was the only certainty on a film set. The players were always different, but the status was constant. And almost everyone was angling for better status. The camera operator wanted to be cinematographer; the cinematographer wanted to direct. The secretaries wanted to be associate producers; the p.a.’s, the production assistants, wanted to be anything that wasn’t the lowest rung on the latter. The stand-ins wanted to act. Everyone was working on a script.

This tendency was apparently exacerbated by the book and the expectations surrounding it, as “the idea took hold that this particular movie could be the definitive vehicle of dreams, big enough and flashy enough to carry along a great many people—the stretch limo of hope and ambition.” It wasn’t, and the fault is better placed on those towards the top than those towards the bottom. Status is hard-gained and easily lost, and blame is also easy; of a test audience, de Palma thinks, “They didn’t have a clue.” Maybe not, but if you’re in mainstream cinema, you better be ready to sell—as he’d apparently forgotten when he thought he was making art. “Money didn’t seem to mean anything, and yet it meant everything,” means that it means everything.

The Devil’s Candy implies that money corrupts to some extent, but that everyone involved, including watchers, is complicit. Look at what the book calls “the emergence of infotainment as a regular feature on local news shows[, which] resulted in a complex symbiosis between the studios and the journalists who followed the film industry for television.” But if those journalists have become derelict in their duty as independent voices, it’s only because we, the people, keep watching them despite their questionable province, like eating foul sausages prior to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At one point, someone

designed his own diorama showing hyenas disemboweling a gazelle. He loved the juxtaposition of this image against the society crowd. “When you think about animals, and these people, you realize that’s what they are,” he said. “Beautifully dressed animals.”

Is he talking about the society Wolfe depicted in his novel, or could he also be talking about Hollywood, media celebrities, readers, and all of us? Such is the pleasure of The Devil’s Candy that it could be any or all of them.

Lush Life and Richard Price in Seattle

Richard Price’s Lush Life is a study in power—who has it, who doesn’t, who is trying to get it—and dignity, which, sooner or later, almost every character loses. Those who have power and dignity in one sphere, as detective Matty Clark mostly does in the police world, lose it in another, as Matty does at home. He is uncomfortably close to a stock genre detective, but the lush language of Lush Life gives Matty others such life that they are people, and people who reflect their social and media environment.

Lush Life begins not with a murder but with the “Quality of Life Task Force,” a group of four white cops who are lowering, not raising, the quality of life. The idiotic speculation of one is juxtaposed with an image representing one of the book’s central concerns:

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”

Groups overlap in Price’s Lower East Side, with the influence of the earlier group never fully erased, just as the Star of David is still faintly visible. People linger, which Price spoke about when he visited Seattle in March, saying that there are “six groups of people who don’t realize they’re not there anymore.” Moreover, as he says, “nobody knows anybody, nobody sees anything,” especially relating to crime, which leads to the perceived necessity of the Quality of Life Task Force and the real necessity of detectives like Matty.

The intersection of two particular groups leads murder, one group being the relatively wealthy suburban kids—I think of them as kids though one, Eric Cash, is a 35 waiter and would-be screenwriter—who move back to the areas their grant parents fled and provide the victim. The other group is the poor urban kids who might have provided the perpetrators. None come off well. Nor do their parents, who range from uninterested in actively hostile. The murder of Isaac Marcus, for example, inspires his divorced parents to shack up again in a hotel, and when Matty arrives afterward and opens a curtain, “both of them staring at him with the unself-consciousness of animals, with unblinking pie-eyed shock.” But are they in shock at the light, Matty, themselves, or the situation? I’m not sure, which is part of the novel’s beauty.

Ambiguity is everywhere, as characters hope and dream of higher places. Eric is a friend, loosely defined, of Isaac Marcus, his desire to get into the movies is a much lighter version of Sean Touhey from Clockers. Lush Life in general is a better, subtler, richer version of Clockers, which is a tremendous compliment, for Clockers itself is a strong novel. But Lush Life goes beyond it, artistically and socially. Where Clockers is all cops and robbers, Lush Life encompasses everyone from the rich kids and the nominally upper echelons of society to the street dregs. It captures the former better than, say, Claire Messud’s good if indulgent The Emperor’s Children, which also focuses on them, and the latter with the skill Price has already established. You see a fantastic collision on page 92, when Eric tries to describe his work, of which he is vaguely ashamed, especially in the face of the skeptical cops. And with good reason: Matty belittles him, the scene is so effective I a) hesitate to quote it and yet b) want to so badly*. The scene works so well because you know Matty’s description is what Eric thinks of himself if he’s being intellectually honest.

To the extent there are novelistic rules about plot, characterization, movement, motion, and the like, I don’t think Price breaks them—he simply wields novelistic conventions better than almost anyone else and uses his talent on language itself. One dangerous thing about writing a long post and then leaving it till much later for proofreading is that you never know when James Wood is going to come along and preempt you. But his discussion of Price’s dialog is worth reading, and I note that he also found the excruciating interrogation scene and quoted the same scene. Wood focuses on the dialog, but the brilliant descriptions and contrasts also help:

Despite its stark opulence, the place was the size of a shoe box, with barely a foot clearance between that huge bed and the three-sided terrace, which offered an imperial overview of the area: a sea of cramped and huddled walk-ups and century-old elementary schools, the only structures out there aspiring to any kind of height the randomly sprouting bright yellow Tyvek-wrapped multistory add-ons, and farther out, superimposed against the river, the housing projects and union-built co-ops that flanked the east side of this grubby vista like siege towers.

All that in one endlessly rolling sentence: by the time you’re at the end, you’ve forgiven him for using the shoebox cliché. Notice the missing verb between “height” and “the:” but it’s okay, the verb would only interrupt the flow of the speech, and I hadn’t realized its absence until after I quoted it here. The sentence tells you how the landscape reflects the people, with the age of it providing a backdrop of substance in lives that often seem to lack it.

Imperfections in Lush Lifeare minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical. Two pages later, though, and Price is hitting the high notes again, hiding and eliding and showing: “Seated with Minette on the front steps of the now deserted Langenshield, Matty went through the motions of rattling off a cursory progress report, omitting, of course, the continuing press gag, the scuttled seventh-day recanvass, and the unreturned phone calls.” We get a picture of the bureaucracy, are reminded of the plot, and learn about Matty in his role of cop in one swift, seamless recap; a page later, Matty’s lack of enthusiasm about his children is obvious: “He said, ‘Yeah,’ but Minette read the tell, searched his eyes for what he wasn’t saying.” As previously mentioned, Matty does fit the template of emotionally wounded but dedicated cop too well, just as his sidekick, Yolanda, is too close a fit to the wisecracking assistant, but these are things only recognized afterwards, as I discovered that the characters lead lives of what appear to be squalor from the outside. But Lush Life gives the sense that maybe their lives are redeemed by moments of happiness or small success. As the conflicts between cultural and social classes, law and desire, and power and language play out, Lush Life brought me along like a literary but streetsmart guide. I mentioned how few novels have moved me recently, and it’s a pleasure to find one that does so with such panache and skill.

The crowd at his reading, or at least the verbal part of it, seemed less interested in discussing the novel itself and the aforementioned panache and skill than the Lower East Side. A number of older transported New Yorkers came to talk, apparently, about geography and places.

But Price talked about ideas, too—about the residents who don’t want to complain too much because they’re immigrants, the families who came to the Lower East Side as immigrants and fled as soon as possible, and the ones now going back because of the real estate costs elsewhere in New York. One thing Price avoids is The Wonderful Past, as he said the Lower East Side “has always been a hellhole,” and sentimentality about it is only useful for the preservationists and such. One ironic point Price made is that a tenement museum exists not far from actual tenements, which I can believe.

I asked about the connection between Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities bears many similarities to Lush Life, and his own work. Price thought I referred to “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” as mentioned here, but I said I meant that or Wolfe’s fiction. Price said it wasn’t explicitly on his mind but that Tom Wolfe had a point with his essay, and that there’s a whole world out there and you’re not obligated to make yourself its center. Instead of searching one’s interior, Price said “you can find yourself by getting lost,” and that’s been doing so for 15 years by following his gut wherever it takes him.

I got the impression that Price doesn’t really like Wolfe but respects him; in Lush Life, Price is a more consciously literary version of Elmore Leonard, which is a very good thing. Regardless of literary influences, however, Price has written as good a book as I’ve read recently and one that will, I imagine, prove even more resilient than Clockers.


* Okay, I can’t resist, but you’ve been warned that I recommend you skip it so the passage blows you away in the context. Matty tells Eric: “I have listened to your shit in here all day. You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket. Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don’t believe that shooting last night was an accident. I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off.”

No good novels?

An e-mail from a reader noted that I haven’t liked many novels over the past few months, and in looking back she’s right: the last novel I really liked was The Name of the Rose. More common have been flawed but decent novels like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man. Fortunately, Ladies’ Man didn’t stop me from getting Price’s most recent work, Lush Life, which is amazing, gigantic, detailed, and many other superlatives thus far, although I’m only halfway through. It stalks the billion-footed beast (warning: .pdf link). It lives up to the hype. It deals with the rich, the poor, the cops, the pimps, the dead, the live, and the soon-to-be-dead (I suspect), and does so with linguistic flair.

Now I’m especially excited to hear Price on Friday.

A Reader's Manifesto — B.R. Myers

I read and loved B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, an essay decrying the literary and critical tendency toward, respectively, writing and praising mushy “self-conscious, writerly prose,” that lacks artistry, coherence, and story. The same Myers wrote an article about Elmore Leonard I derided in The Prisoner of Convention, but as much as that was misguided A Reader’s Manifesto is dead on target. Both first appeared in The Atlantic, though chopped to a smaller, shriller form. A short version of A Reader’s Manifesto is ungated, but the whole, unexpurgated book form shows more examples of what Myers perceives to be good prose, providing more balance. The printed version also rebuts many of the retorts, which often misstate Myers’ argument, to A Reader’s Manifesto. It’s easily to parodied: many critics write that Myers argues against experimentation, or demands conformity, or lacks the acuity to understand modern literature. He preemptively deals with such points, and my single sentence pop summary doesn’t contain the essay’s nuances, which are subtle and important enough to merit reading everything.

Despite my praise, you see can see precursors to A Reader’s Manifesto in Tom Wolfe’s, Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: a Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel and in others who echo Wolfe, like Dan Simmons in this Salon interview.

None of the three directly address one of the harder problems for the average reader: deciding what to read, especially if one should not trust many critics. I doubt most readers follow the debate among mandarin book reviews and the like. As Robert Towers writes in The Flap over Tom Wolfe: How Real is the Retreat from Realism?, “The overwhelming impression one gets is that Mr. Wolfe has read very little of the fiction of the last 30 years – the period during which, he laments, realism became hopelessly old-hat, practiced chiefly by such antiquated figures as Saul Bellow, Robert Stone (born six years after Mr. Wolfe) and John Updike (one year younger than Mr. Wolfe), who ”found it hard to give up realism” (as if they ever tried!).” Wolfe and Myers infight, and are in danger of ignoring the vast corpus of modern fiction, the operative word being vast: I, for one, hesitate to make too many generalizations given the sheer number of titles published. You can find good fiction of the kind Wolfe says is no longer written, and of the kind Myers says is too-often ignored by prize committees.

To be fair, Myers never says that strong, important writing has utterly disappeared—he only laments that so many mediocre or bad writers receive so much adulation. I agree and try to defend the writers worth defending, deflate those not, and remind others of the great but forgotten, or underloved, or poorly publicized authors who deserve notice–most notably Robertson Davies. In doing so, I try to avoid the hype machines manufacture hype and reputations. A Reader’s Manifesto is a useful corrective to the hyperbolic claims of much bad modern literature, especially after trying Don DeLillo’s bizarre soporifics White Noise and Underworld. The person I love to hate most is critical sensation Jonathan Safran Foer, whose two best-known novels are so awful that it takes restraint not to write off the entire taste in books of any devotee. Skip Foer and DeLillo, and take up Myers: he is willing to say that the emperor has no clothes.


EDIT: This post also covers A Reader’s Manifesto.

A Reader’s Manifesto — B.R. Myers

I read and loved B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, an essay decrying the literary and critical tendency toward, respectively, writing and praising mushy “self-conscious, writerly prose,” that lacks artistry, coherence, and story. The same Myers wrote an article about Elmore Leonard I derided in The Prisoner of Convention, but as much as that was misguided A Reader’s Manifesto is dead on target. Both first appeared in The Atlantic, though chopped to a smaller, shriller form. A short version of A Reader’s Manifesto is ungated, but the whole, unexpurgated book form shows more examples of what Myers perceives to be good prose, providing more balance. The printed version also rebuts many of the retorts, which often misstate Myers’ argument, to A Reader’s Manifesto. It’s easily to parodied: many critics write that Myers argues against experimentation, or demands conformity, or lacks the acuity to understand modern literature. He preemptively deals with such points, and my single sentence pop summary doesn’t contain the essay’s nuances, which are subtle and important enough to merit reading everything.

Despite my praise, you see can see precursors to A Reader’s Manifesto in Tom Wolfe’s, Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: a Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel and in others who echo Wolfe, like Dan Simmons in this Salon interview.

None of the three directly address one of the harder problems for the average reader: deciding what to read, especially if one should not trust many critics. I doubt most readers follow the debate among mandarin book reviews and the like. As Robert Towers writes in The Flap over Tom Wolfe: How Real is the Retreat from Realism?, “The overwhelming impression one gets is that Mr. Wolfe has read very little of the fiction of the last 30 years – the period during which, he laments, realism became hopelessly old-hat, practiced chiefly by such antiquated figures as Saul Bellow, Robert Stone (born six years after Mr. Wolfe) and John Updike (one year younger than Mr. Wolfe), who ”found it hard to give up realism” (as if they ever tried!).” Wolfe and Myers infight, and are in danger of ignoring the vast corpus of modern fiction, the operative word being vast: I, for one, hesitate to make too many generalizations given the sheer number of titles published. You can find good fiction of the kind Wolfe says is no longer written, and of the kind Myers says is too-often ignored by prize committees.

To be fair, Myers never says that strong, important writing has utterly disappeared—he only laments that so many mediocre or bad writers receive so much adulation. I agree and try to defend the writers worth defending, deflate those not, and remind others of the great but forgotten, or underloved, or poorly publicized authors who deserve notice–most notably Robertson Davies. In doing so, I try to avoid the hype machines manufacture hype and reputations. A Reader’s Manifesto is a useful corrective to the hyperbolic claims of much bad modern literature, especially after trying Don DeLillo’s bizarre soporifics White Noise and Underworld. The person I love to hate most is critical sensation Jonathan Safran Foer, whose two best-known novels are so awful that it takes restraint not to write off the entire taste in books of any devotee. Skip Foer and DeLillo, and take up Myers: he is willing to say that the emperor has no clothes.


EDIT: This post also covers A Reader’s Manifesto.

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