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.

7 responses

  1. Bonfire of the Vanities is a brilliant book, in my humble opinion. A Man in Full and everything afterward has had lesser success. Some aspects of novel writing seem to escape Mr. Wolfe and yes you’re right, some period details he screws up. That said, I still consider Wolfe one of the greatest living American authors, if not No. 1. But New Journalism non-fiction is where he is at his best (and where he probably needs to return). The Right Stuff and Electric Cool Aid Acid Test are books to blow your ears off.


  2. Nice, I really liked your opinion and facts about on the book. I usually expect just a paragraph from online people, but you really took it seriously and I enjoyed reading it.


  3. I am a more or less native Miamian and outsiders always get it wrong. Locals rarely go to the beach or, like me, they go to the dog beach (Hobe Sound) to avoid tourists like the plague. It is really hard to pinpoint Miami because it is the oddest city in the world. It isn’t a cohesive unit, but the fragments don’t match up either.


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