Tom Wolfe writes what are, in effect, graphic novels without the graphics – “WHOMP!” and “SMACK” and “BEAT-unngh thungBEAT-unngh thung” and “yaaagggggh” and “bliiiiIIISTERSssssAHHHHH hock hock hock ahhhhHHHH!” are among the onomatopoeic and mimetic effusions, ejaculations and eructations Wolfe wields, like a mad manga artist, in his exceptionally uneven new novel, Back to Blood. This astonishing lump of pulp, which follows a muscular, wide-eyed young cop and his gorgeous former girlfriend Magdalena, both of them of Cuban descent, as they stumble blindly through the wilds of modern-day Miami, is lurid, crazily entertaining and shockingly self-revealing (I felt vicariously embarrassed for Wolfe on virtually every page) all in more or less equal measure.
Though this is a graphic (in both senses of the word) narrative nonetheless lacking any actual textual illustrations, the back cover of the hardcover edition is devoted to Wolfe’s own author’s photo, taken by Mark Seliger, and the afterimage of this very carefully posed and yet oddly disconcerting shot is likely to illuminate readers’ perceptions of everything inside. Here is Wolfe, wearing one of his famous white suits (he reputedly never appears in public without one), various other spruce accoutrements including a cane and a satin-banded hat and a pocket handkerchief (but where are the cufflinks?), and a disarmingly sweet expression that seems to radiate a profound benevolence.
But isn’t focusing on an author’s photograph superficial? Isn’t it irrelevant to the literary work within? No, and no. For Wolfe, there is nothing deeper than superficiality, and everything about his appearance is calculated to underscore his literary methodology and a weltanschauung that has remained consistent throughout such deservedly famous works as the era-defining Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, as well as more problematic but nonetheless interesting ones such as A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Wolfe, like so many other satirists, is at heart an indignant traditionalist. He expresses this traditionalism not – as other contemporary conservative novelists such as Mark Helprin might do, through stories that poetically extol the enduring virtues – but by gleefully and sorrowfully exposing and rendering ridiculous the more-shameful manifestations of our freewheeling farrago of a culture.
So Nestor Camacho, the likable, bulgingly muscular 25-year-old cop who is at the center of Wolfe’s story, goes about his business like the honorable man he is, but invariably is excoriated for it. As the story opens, he rescues, with great strength and courage, a would-be escapee from Castro’s Cuba from the 75-foot mast of a schooner near Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway, but is lambasted by Miami’s Cuban community and his own family because the refugee, who never managed to set foot on American soil, will probably be repatriated to Cuba. This somehow makes Camacho, who was only doing his job as a police officer, a traitor to his own race.
Similarly, he saves the life of a fellow officer who is being choked to death by a hulking crack-house denizen, but because he and his partner use some unfortunate epithets in the course of the wrestle-down and arrest that are caught on a cellphone camera and posted to YouTube, he once again becomes the object of uncomprehending hate.
Similarly, his one-time girlfriend, a psychiatric nurse and the story’s other semi-innocent witness to depravity, works for and is the sexual plaything of a psychiatrist who specializes in treating “pornography addiction” (and who earns much of his money and social standing by deliberately prolonging his wealthy patients’ predilections.) The doctor – the one who’s “hocking” about blisters in the passage above, and what those blisters are, trust me, you don’t want to know – also takes Magdalena to a Columbus Day “regatta” that is actually an open-air orgy.
And both Magdalena and Nestor – in the narrative’s main strand, an absorbing detective story – get involved in differing ways in uncovering a massive art fraud involving the counterfeiting of modern Russian masters. The unfolding of this scheme allows Wolfe (who has been rumored for many years to be working on a major novel on the topic of contemporary art and who published, some years ago, a slim exposé on the subject called The Painted Word) the opportunity to mock the cluelessness of contemporary art buyers, the unscrupulousness of dealers, and what he sees, with a great deal of reason, as the utter lack of skill on the part of abstract and conceptual artists themselves.
Even as Wolfe mocks these manifestations of our “anything goes” culture, he reminds us that it isn’t true at all that anything goes. His other great theme, besides his contempt for much of contemporaneity, is power and, in particular, the power relationships that govern the way we view ourselves and evaluate our self-worth. The rules and the hierarchies are as complex in modern-day Miami as in the court of Louis XIV, and perhaps more so, in light of the manifold stratifications and social rules of a city where there are a greater number of recent immigrants than in perhaps any other city in the world.
Yes, in modern-day Miami you can water-ski in the nude and have sex on the deck of your boat and make millions designing pornographic art, but you’d better not look at a construction worker the wrong way or address a colleague in the police force in the wrong terms, or your life could be over in an instant. You’d better not be weak (or, in Wolfe’s obsessively overused appellation, a “pussy”). And you’d better not betray your “blood”, i.e., your ethnic group, or you will be ostracized as Nestor becomes – in a heartbeat, without a second thought and without any recourse.
As social criticism, this is all well and good, but yikes! Ever since his earliest works, such as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Wolfe has chosen to express his cultural conservatism using some of the most radical language one could imagine. The goal – more evident in this novel than in any of his previous works – is to re-create, in slightly exaggerated form, the reality he witnesses or researches, even if that means, in the process, being impossibly profane and racially demeaning and as un-PC as perhaps any writer in America today. Thus, he creates what could be described as “contiguous caricatures” that more or less exactly map the tawdry awfulness he sees (although for some reason he rarely chooses to see nobility), and then shovels the whole sticky mess, albeit in the form of an entertaining narrative, into the laps of his readers.
In this way, he is able to get away with describing the Cuban refugee as a “turd-brown boy” and “a filthy clump of laundry” and a “slurry-brown homunculus” because, well, that’s the way others — not only the cops and the pudgy white owners of the high-masted ship, but his fellow Cubans – see him, at least in Wolfe’s world.
One is reminded in these passages that not every aspect of traditionalism deserves equally to live on. (Although, to be “fair” – if that is in any way the right word here – Wolfe or, ahem, his characters, is equally contemptuous of white people, describing them as headless maggots, among other things.)
If it were only a lack of politesse, or a disdain for political correctness, all this nastiness would be one thing. And it goes without saying that ugliness must be described as faithfully as beauty – the producers of The Wire, for example, or any of a dozen crime writers one could name, don’t trouble themselves with self-censorship or phony prettification when representing the grittier precincts of our cities. But the contempt Wolfe feels isn’t just for political correctness, it’s for virtually everything but “manliness” and physical beauty.
On top of all of this, Wolfe isn’t merely or unambiguously critical of societal schlockiness, he also revels in it. His prose style itself is, frankly, meretricious. Beyond all of the “WHOMP” and the “uuunnngohohohohOGHOHHHH!” (that’s an actual quote) there are the frequent backwards sentences – “City Life he craved,” for example – and the flaccid banality of much of the dialogue, as when various characters pronounce that “(i)t was if pay phones had disappeared from the face of the earth,” or “(a)s has been true throughout recorded history, rare is the strong man strong enough to shrug off a woman’s tears…”
Nor does Wolfe wear his learning at all lightly. He clearly knows what todo el mundo means, and clearly wants the whole world to know he knows it, because he uses this phrase dozens of times throughout the book, whether it makes perfect sense in context or not.
Worse, at some point – around I Am Charlotte Simmons, it would seem, with all of that novel’s endlessly detailed descriptions of male musculature – Wolfe would seem to have taken an anatomy course, and he’s not about to let us forget it. An editor of the Miami Herald doesn’t merely ponder the mess that is Miami; no, “all the things they tried to tell him about the situation in Miami wafted across the brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas…” Even if you’re a neurosurgeon who knows exactly what the brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are, what possible need could one have to be reminded of their existence, other than as a concomitant reminder that Wolfe is a huge, honking show-off?
Or this, from Magdalena’s psychiatrist boyfriend, exclaiming about one of those naked water skiers: “Did you see that? Did you see it, kid? That guy broke every known rule of the central nervous system! No man can endure the taxation water-skiing weighs on his legs, the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the latissimi dorsi, the brachialis – and maintain an erection like that… it can’t happen – but it just did!”
Or this, the thoughts of the newspaper editor viewing a couple of attractive Latina girls: “He could feel the tumescence men live for welling up beneath his Jockey tighty-whiteys! Oh, ineffable dirty girls!… Perfect little cupcakes! He could just see the lubricants and spirochetes oozing into the crotches of their short short-shorts! Short short short-shorts! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex! There it was, sex in Miami, up on golden Lucite thrones!”
The overall effect of this, and of Wolfe’s ongoing references to “mons veneris” and “labia majorae”, and “the sartorious muscles” and “lats” and “biceps” and “delts” and “pecs” and various other declivities and bulges, male and female alike, is that of eavesdropping on an amazingly brainy 13-year-old masturbator. Wolfe seems as unhealthily obsessed as one of the patients of his “pornography addiction” doctor, but unlike the patients, Wolfe isn’t sure if he’s salivating or satirizing: “(Magdalena) could make her exit by daylight inconspicuously, since people could only see the inner halves of her boobs, and each nipple would be covered by a ribbon’s width of the dress’s black faux-silk cloth.”
Just as bad is when Wolfe turns his eye on a character who isn’t quite so nubile: “She sat with a regal posture, but she was no longer young. Nor was she an apt model for the dress she had on. It plunged all the way down to the sternum, arousing not the satyrs but the health nuts. Where had all the collagen gone – the collagen in the inner curves of her barely there breasts? Why had she put body makeup on the bony terrain between the breasts – an early incursion of little age spots?”
Now this, all of this, is just plain embarrassing. Wolfe is America’s reigning poet laureate of humiliation and, in his pitiless worldview, a failure to understand the hierarchies of a given culture – in this case, Miami – leads, inevitably, to abasement and shame. (“Humiliation One” and “Humiliation, Too” are the titles of two consecutive chapters in this book, both referring to a difficult sexual situation that Magdalena allows herself to get into, crying, as she struggles with her post-coital shame, “(w)hat’s worse that death?…Humiliation!”)
And yet Wolfe, certainly nobody’s fool, nonetheless humiliates himself most of all. Here is a man who wrote a justly celebrated essay called “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” about the need for novelists to stop gazing at their navels and instead take on the insane hurly-burly of the outside world, who is nonetheless spending much of his moral capital gazing upon, and lovingly describing, pudenda and biceps and deltoids, and revealing to the world, in this book and in Charlotte Simmons alike (unless he is vastly more canny and post-modern about his authorial persona than would seem likely) his soulless, body-part-focused sexual fixations.
This brings us back to the author’s photo. Wolfe is clearly very conscious of his image, and he has used it extensively to promote his career. He’s the anti-Pynchon. He dresses like a dandy, and yet here, his dapper appearance is undercut somewhat by a slightly wrinkled pocket handkerchief and what appears to be a limp, sloppily tied necktie. He smiles at the camera with wise benevolence, and yet his attitude towards nearly all of his characters, and the ethnic groups they represent, is heartlessly cruel – the prerogative of a satirist, true enough, but Wolfe presents himself as something broader and more inclusive than this, which is to say a novelist.
Wolfe or his photographer could use a wardrobe assistant, and Wolfe could use an editor while he’s at it, too. He writes with brio! and verve! and nerve! and there is hardly a sentence in this book that isn’t entertaining, either deliberately or inadvertently so. What’s more, he’s earned his right to lecture his readers on the subject of manliness – despite his dandified appearance, he’s got real cojones when it comes to taking on touchy subjects and sacred cows like contemporary art and architecture and some of his envious fellow authors. But someone needs to attend to his style and, for that matter, to the moral substance underlying that style. In both cases, the person best qualified to do the job is scrutinizing him in the mirror every morning when he dons his white suit.