Saturday, December 01, 2012

Bonfire of the ethnicities

Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood (Boston: Little, Brown, 2012). 704 pages.

Tom Wolfe has now written four novels—four very big novels—since declaring forty years ago that the novel was no longer “literature’s main event.” Back then, Wolfe was singing the praises of the New Journalism, a promotional name for magazine writing that was said to read like fiction. Wolfe’s aim was to winch journalism out of its “terrific slough of understatement,” doing whatever it takes “to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.” The reporter would become a narrator, exchanging objec­tivity’s “drone” for a “voice” as bright as personality; and if he had to juice his prose with “interjections, shouts, nonsense words, onomatopoeia, mimesis, pleonasms,” or even resort to wild surges of punctu­ation (“dots, dashes, exclamation points, italics, and occasionally punctuation that never existed before ::::::::::”), he would do so in the name of—well, of what was not exactly clear. Newness? Overstatement? Making the author as important as his subject? This much was sure: in literary histories yet to be written, the New Journalism would be seen as “dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre.”

Then, at the relatively advanced age of 56, Wolfe came forth with a novel of his own. Published in 1987, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a vast 700-page panorama of New York City in the 1980’s, which owed more than its title and moral vision to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. It told the story of a high-flying Wall Street trader, a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” with the audacity to concoct a $3 million profit in one afternoon by cynically manipulating the bond market. He is brought low by race hustlers and a politically ambitious district attorney cynically manipulating the criminal justice system—a morality tale on the theme of vanitas vanitatum. As Wolfe explained later in a scandalous “manifesto for the new social novel” published in Harper’s, he hoped to startle American fiction into returning to life, to “big, rich slices of contemporary life.” The American novel, which he mocked as the anorexic novel, had pivoted away from the American feast. “The act of writing words on a page was the real thing,” he lamented, “and the so-called real life of America was the fiction, requiring the suspension of disbelief.”

For a writer who earlier in his career had criticized avant-garde “conceptual” art as little more than a graphic illustration of verbal theories—The Painted Word, he called it in a 1975 book—Wolfe’s admission that The Bonfire of the Vanities was written to “prove a point” might have seemed an irony too far. But the uncom­fortable truth is that Wolfe may not have entirely understood his own success. Although he crowed about taking his rightful place in the “vein that runs from Dreiser to Steinbeck,” and though he claimed to have revived the “intensely realistic novel” with its “broad social sweep,” The Bonfire of the Vanities was a pretty conventional satire. The objects of its ridicule—hypocrisy, pretension, envy, greed—have been the standard fare of English-language satire since the 18th century. What set Wolfe’s novel apart from other American novels of the late 1980’s, what carried it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for eight straight weeks, knocking Stephen King from his perch, was its information. If you read it you could learn how bonds are traded on Wall Street, what happens behind the scenes in court, how New York million­aires dress themselves and spend their days and furnish their apartments, what it feels like to be lost at night on the mean streets of the South Bronx.

As the late Jacques Barzun once said, the first question to ask of any book is whether we know anything afterward that we did not know before. Novels are no different from any other kind of book in this respect—or at least they didn’t used to be. In addition to being a great novel (though not an intensely realistic one), Melville’s Moby-Dick was also an encyclopaedia of whaling in narrative form. Among Wolfe’s contemporaries, only Philip Roth had much interest in learning about any productive labor besides fiction—hotel management, glove-making, kosher butchering—and even he imparted the background information largely to render the foreground more believable. Wolfe, by contrast, grounded his fiction in firsthand reporting or what newspapermen like to call legwork. From his first book in 1965 (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby with its title essay on the men who customize cars), Wolfe has been amazed, not only at how other people live and interact, but at what they find to do.

His next two novels, A Man in Full (1998) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), were written on assignment, so to speak, in the Atlanta real-estate market and the undergraduate culture of an elite pri­vate university strangely resembling Duke. For their readers, the novels were like audio tours to unfamil­iar settings, which they might otherwise never visit. Wolfe described his working methods: “leaving the study, going out into the world, documenting society, linking individual psychology to its social con­text.” When the critics complained that his characters were “big, vivid blots of typology” with the “emo­tional depth of newsprint,” they failed to grasp that Wolfe was up to something fundamentally different from the “literary” novelists they were accustomed to praising. For him, the most basic human emo­tions—the ones that motivate human behavior—are aroused by social circumstances, especially a sensi­tivity over one’s social standing. Introspection and the self-examination of motives are a lot rarer than literary intellectuals may think. Status and the surface details that mark status, on Wolfe’s showing, are the ways in which ordinary men and women avoid personality. The status sphere to which they belong, the status system that makes sense of their actions, are the heart of their mystery. To get those right is to get the people right. With each new title, Wolfe’s satire softened and his characters became more and more sympathetic, but they remained “cartoonish” because they remained locked in status competitions that prevented them from becoming anything more.

In Back to Blood, his new novel about the ethnic rivalries in Miami, Wolfe has created his most sympathetic character yet—perhaps the first of Wolfe’s characters to escape the prison of status com­petition altogether. Nestor Camacho is a 25-year-old policeman, the son of refugees from Castro’s Cuba, living with his parents in Hialeah, a “city of 220,000 souls, and close to 200,000 must be Cubans.” Miami’s official Little Havana is a stretch “along Calle Ocho, where the tourists all stopped at Café Versailles and had a cup of terribly sweet Cuban coffee,” pleased to have soaked up the “authentic, picturesque, folk­lórica atmósfera.” The real Little Havana is Hialeah, where the Cubans, “by nature ambitious,” have moved to get away from the old neighborhood, now a slum populated by Nicaraguans “and God knew who else.”

At the novel’s beginning, Nestor is a four-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, recently promoted to the Marine Patrol, an elite unit keeping watch on Biscayne Bay. Ordered to the scene of a disturbance near the Rickenbacker Causeway, Nestor climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner—using only his arms to climb faster—and either saves the life of a Cuban refugee or arrests him, depending on the perspective. Within the police department he becomes an overnight hero, but he is a traidor to the Cuban community. His own family turns against him. His beautiful Cuban girlfriend dumps him. The Cuban mayor instructs the police chief to demote Nestor to a beat cop. The chief won’t hear of it:

Everybody knows he risked his life to save a man. The whole city saw it. His fellow cops all admire him, no matter who they are. They all think of him as really brave, except they’d never say it—that’s taboo.So Nestor is reassigned to the Crime Suppression Unit. But then one day, on surveillance at a crack house, he singlehandedly takes down a drug dealer—a giant of a man, six-five and 275 pounds—who is strangling his sergeant. Nestor, all of five-seven and 160 pounds, seizes the giant in a full nelson and rides him to the floor. Again, he finds himself a hero to his fellow cops. And again, to the mayor, he is a political headache instead—a “one-man race riot.” Someone at the scene filmed the arrest on a cell phone and posted the video to YouTube, where Nestor can be seen (in the mayor’s words) “abusing a citizen of our African American community.” Again, the mayor instructs the police chief to get rid of Nestor. “He’s a damned good cop,” the chief objects. Threatened with his own job, the chief relieves Nestor of duty.

Ethnicity is what Wolfe calls elsewhere a “fiction-absolute,” a principle of value which is central to the self-conception of the ethnic group’s members. The ethnic rivalries in Miami—Cubans versus blacks versus whites versus Russians, even involving the recently arrived Haitians—are status competitions, a jockeying for position in the city’s pecking order. With its dislocations and anonymities, the modern city pushes everybody “back to blood,” a phrase Wolfe first introduced in The Bonfire of the Vanities and repeats here to announce his theme:Everybody . . . all of them . . . it’s back to blood! Religion is dying . . . but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, “Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.” But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us.Nestor Camacho, however, is expelled from his ethnic group, cutting him off from his “Cuban heritage,” and is stripped of his occupation, leaving him without a clear picture of himself. A man without any status at all, he wonders whether he exists. And yet, when he learns of an injustice at a Miami high school where a teacher has been falsely accused of striking a student in class, he undertakes an investigation, all on his own, without directive or supervision, and exposes evidence of a plot to frame the teacher. Why? He wasn’t angling to get his job back or clear his name, the police chief comes to understand: “He was just being a cop.”

Like Wolfe’s first three novels, Back to Blood is intricately laid out, crisscrossed by no less than three different storylines, only tangentially related to one another, which hurtle toward a collision in the closing pages. One subplot involves a Russian “oligarch,” a gangster really, who has purchased local status for himself by donating “seventy millions dollars’ worth of paintings by big-name Russian Modernists” to the New Miami Art Museum, which is renamed in his honor. A reporter for the Miami Herald suspects they are forgeries. Another subplot involves a celebrity psychiatrist who treats porno­graphy addicts (laughing at them behind their backs), and his nurse and lover, Nestor’s ex-girlfriend, who tries to sleep her way to higher status. Wolfe has studied Miami thoroughly, and he puts his research on engrossing informative display. I learned many things I never knew before, including some I’d rather forget—especially about the pornographic turn in contemporary art.

But Nestor Camacho’s story is what you read the novel for. Whether Wolfe has succeeded, after four novels, in restoring the novel to its position as the number one genre is uncertain. What is clear is that, on his fourth try, he has written a superb novel, perhaps even a great novel—and not because he has included lots of information and big slices of contemporary American life (although he has done that too). Back to Blood is so good because Nestor’s story is so good, and because Tom Wolfe has learned that the best novels are based, not on reporting, but on people and their moral choices. It can’t be accidental that Back to Blood is about a good policeman, who shares a quirk of temperament with good reporters: not the hunger for status, but rather the stubborn insistence upon getting to the bottom of something, no matter how small, no matter who knows, whether a classroom assault or the truth about a man’s life.

Note: This review was originally scheduled to run in the December 2012 issue of Commentary, but even though it was written and set in type and prepared for publication before John Podhoretz fired me, it was killed because . . . because . . . well, I don’t know why it was killed. Perhaps, to use Podhoretz’s own term, once the critic was no longer “acceptable,” his criticism also became unacceptable—after the fact.


Paul Joseph Strassfield said...

Besides what befalls him in Miami's complex society Nestor Comancho prevails by making demands on himself. The alternative is defeat, or worse. Only by continuously being true to himself does Nestor survive. There's a lesson in that for all of us in heralding misanthropy and this excellent review.

johnwerneken said...

Yes. People are what people are interested in. As Martha used to say, "that's a Good Thing".