Sunday 21 July 2013

Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood

I often remark that my favourite American novelist — perhaps my favourite novelist, full stop — is Tom McGuane. Recently, though, I've come to realise that he may well be tied for first place with his namesake, Tom Wolfe. Both these writers are wonderfully funny, highly intelligent and write splendidly and ironically, with great insight, about the nation they see changing around them. But in other ways they couldn't be more different. 

McGuane writes slender volumes in which plots are few and far between. Wolfe's books are massive tomes, typically weighing in at around 700 pages, and they present a banquet of interweaving plots and subplots. But the density of those books does not lead to dullness. On the contrary, Wolfe is magnificently readable and these giant novels end far too soon for the reader. And then there's the long wait for the next one — in 25 years we've only had the privilege of four novels from Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe began his career writing journalism and his books of essays and reportage are well worth reading, though like tiny hors d'oeuvres they may leave you hungry for more. His first substantial (ie long) full length book was the excellent The Right Stuff about the US space program. Just because this is a work of non fiction rather than a novel is no reason for you not to read it. Go on, read it now. I particularly loved the bit about the monkey.

Wolfe's novels are Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, I am Charlotte Simmons and now — hurray, a new Wolfe novel! — Back to Blood. It deals with social, sexual and racial tensions in Miami and like two of its predecessors has a crime at the heart of the story. Its main protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a young policeman of Cuban extraction who is ostracised by his community for doing his job. His neighbours begin avoiding him like the plague:

"Nestor could see Señor Ramos staring at him. The next thing he knew, Señor Ramos was turning towards his front door and snapping his fingers in an exaggerated display of having forgotten something — shoooop — he's back inside his casita."
All of Wolfe's virtues are on full display here (as well as his somewhat bonkers punctuation). The book is hilarious, gripping, beautifully written and dazzlingly well observed. No one is better equipped than Wolfe to dissect the ironies, nuances and contradictions of American society today. The characters are also great — three dimensional and indelibly vivid. Even Cat Posada, the Chief of Police's hot Cubana secretary, who only appears for about four pages, is unforgettable.

Perhaps I should mention, too, that the book is the winner of the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2012. I see he also won for I am Charlotte Simmons in 2004. You can see the list of previous winners here

It seems to me there is something obtuse about this. Wolfe deliberately writes a heightened, extravagant, pop-art prose. And highly effective it is. But to abstract a sex scene or two from his books, and to mock them because they're written in exactly that style, strikes me as wrong headed and pointless. If these sequences were different from the rest of the book, by all means pillory them. Otherwise your choices are to accept them, or to condemn his writing as a whole.

Which it seems a lot of supposed authorities are all too willing to do. While I was doing some research for this post I perforce came across numerous reviews of this book, from august publications, and I was astonished at how many of them were negative and dismissive.

Well, they simply don't know what they are talking about. Maybe they'll appreciate Wolfe's stellar qualities when he is gone, and it's all too late. But the bottom line is, no one is writing finer fiction — literature in fact — in America, or anywhere else, today.  

The lack of insight and informed commentary about Wolfe's new book is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that no one has latched on to the significance of its title — oh, they realise it's to do with racial tensions and conflicting loyalties and the bonds of heredity, all right...

But nowhere among these literary critics and pundits and commentators and alleged experts have I found anyone mention the source of the title. It is actually a quotation — from another Tom Wolfe novel.

You can find it around the fourth page of the first chapter of Bonfire of the Vanities: "Back to blood! Them and us!" It's a scene where the white mayor of New York is being heckled by a crowd in Harlem.

Now that you know more about Back to Blood than the entire critical and literary establishment put together, I suggest you read it. Buy it or borrow it (I won't advocate stealing it). But read it. And get stuck into Wolfe's other novels.

And then you can start on the non fiction.

(Footnote: Wolfe's publishers need a new proof reader. The Señor Ramos mentioned above morphs on page 645 into Mr Ruiz, another character entirely.)

(Image credits: all of the covers are from the blessed Good Reads, including the wonderful Dutch one with the pink flamingos. And if you're wondering what 'Bloody Miami' is all about, it's the (English) title of the French edition. The photo of Tom Wolfe in a blue blazer is by Tod Selby and is from Vanity Fair. The cartoon is from Esquire. The 'Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood' image — which looks like it's based on the Selby photo — is for a film about Wolfe researching the book and it's from Amazon. And I want to see it.)


  1. An interesting review. I have been intending to read " Bonfire of the
    Vanities" for some time.
    I like the diversity of subjects that you review on your blog.
    Best regards.

  2. Bonfire is superb and I'll write about it on this blog soon. Thanks for your feedback!