Of the several Wolfe books I’ve read, two in particular stand out. The Electric Kool Acid Test (1968) came as shock to the system, mine, and almost everyone else’s. The stylistic juxtaposition of stream of (chemically altered) consciousness and journalism was a mind-bending experience. (I admit too that, a few years later, I wasn’t altogether happy that my son found and read it.) Twenty years later, Wolfe gave us the Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) which came out just as capitalist greed was being pronounced good for us by our political rulers in the US and UK, and by our real masters and manipulators in the financial world. Bonfire may have taken its title from Savonarola and Florence 500 years earlier but the book reads as a contemporary roman à clef with its principal characters being a WASP, a Jew, a Brit and a Black. Wolfe originally wrote the book as a Charles Dickens style serial which helped to add chapter-by-chapter tension to the tale. Set in New York, its themes are race, class, politics and greed. An ear for demotic talk and an eye for how people walk, such as the ‘pimp roll’ that was fashionable among young black street-wise men, helps to imprint the story on our minds and give it much apparent verisimilitude. A further 25 years on and, like many from the America’s chilly North-East, the story moves south to Florida and is set in present-day Miami. Wolfe’s third remarkable book is Back to Blood. [London: Jonathan Cape, 2012]
America, more than many other nations, is supposed to be a melting pot but the sub-tropical sun seems rather to have hardened the various groups and ethnicities in terms of place and attitude. One large and growing group is made up of asylum-seeking Cubans, more arriving daily, and their American-born descendants, who tend to live in their own sectors of town, speak Spanish as their first language and look down on gringos and negroes with equal contempt, despise Haitians and have no contact with Russians, except perhaps working as their gardeners, housemaids and drivers. As they put it, “We een Mee-AH-mee Now.” Once again, it’s race, class, politics, greed and the ever fashionable pimp roll; but this time in a warmer climate. This time the archetypal WASP is Edward T Topping IV, the editor of the Miami Herald and the prologue opens as he and his formidable wife, driving her green car, are being cheated of their intended parking space outside a crowded fashionable night spot by a Ferrari 403 driven, expertly, by a glamorous Cuban girl sporting illuminated stiletto heels. She and the wife have a glorious slanging match; the wife in angry CAPITAL LETTER ENGLISH, the Cuban in italicised, extremely crude and vivid Spanish; but both might as well be deaf since neither is really listening to or understanding the other in this battle of the classes. Wolfe is already capturing the multi-stranded thought levels and speech of his characters, shortening everyone’s fuse and setting the scene. Wolfe has an ear for the language, speech and sound patterns of the different groups and, in this new book, conveys the innermost thoughts of characters as the scene unfolds around them by bracketing them in six colons. In Chapter 1, the sound of a police launch racing through choppy water adds a random beat to the narrative.
“SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence on the roof SMACK but officer Nestor Camacho’s fellow SMACK cops here in the cockpit the two fat SMACK americanos they love this stuff they love it love driving the boat SMACK throttle wide open forty-five miles an hour against the wind SMACK bouncing bouncing its shallow aluminium hull SMACK from swell SMACK to swell SMACK to swell SMACK towards the mouth of Biscayne Bay to “see about the man on top of the mast” SMACK “up near the Rickenbacker Causeway.”
The story proper begins with muscular, Cuban police officer Nestor Camacho in that police launch speeding to the scene of an incident where a would-be illegal immigrant has taken refuge of a sort at the very top of a tall mast on a sailing ship. The mast-top is within sight and hailing distance of the Rickenbacker Causeway where a crowd of Cubans is yelling encouragement to their compatriot. Ordered by his americano Sergeant to bring him down, Camacho is strong enough to pull himself seventy feet up a rope, catch and hold the immigrant between his powerful legs and then bring both of them to safety, swinging hand over hand down the cable running from mast to bowsprit. For this he is hailed in the English language Herald as a superhuman hero, saving a poor man’s life, but is castigated by its Spanish edition El Nuevo Herald for preventing one of his fellow Cubans from setting just one foot on dry land and thus qualifying for asylum. Worse, he is renounced by his own extended family for the deed, for which his African American police Chief rewards him with a medal of valour.
Politics then comes rushing in because the Mayor of Miami is Cuban and wants Camacho moved out of sight and maybe even demoted to allay the backlash against City Hall. The Chief moves him to other work where he takes part in a raid on drug dealers using a child-minding group as cover. Camacho has to use his strength and skill again to save the life of another Sergeant being throttled by a huge Afro-American dealer, unaware that the scene and the language used in the heat of the encounter is being videoed by someone’s Smartphone and posted on YouTube within minutes.
Now we have a race issue since the entire African American community already believes that the largely Cuban police force is out to get them. The Mayor insists on another move and even threatens the Chief with dismissal. Then the story introduces greed, both for money and for sex. Nestor Camacho’s beautiful Cuban girl-friend, Magdalena the nurse, is two-timing him with her employer, a sex-addiction psychiatrist, Dr Norman Lewis, who is cloaking his own addiction to sex and pornography under the guise of research.
And finally, in this scene-setting, there is the young Ivy League newspaper reporter with the implausible name of John Smith, a beautiful young and very light-skinned Haitian girl, Ghislaine, with a social conscience, and a stupendously wealthy Russian oligarch, Korolyov, who has just hit the headlines for donating an estimated seventy million dollars worth of modern art to the not long established Miami Art Museum which has been duly renamed the Korolyov Museum of Art in his honour. And there is John Smith telling Edward T Topping IV, and an enthusiastic backer of Korolyov, that “for a start, the Kandinskys and Maleviches are fakes.” And we are only at page 108 of the total 704.
How the lives of these and other sundry characters intersect and affect each other is what drives the book which might, on the very surface, seem to be about art forgery but, underneath Wolfe’s surface paint, the underlying themes writ large on the book’s wide canvas are, as ever, race, class, politics and greed. At this point, however, it has to be said that the characterisations, the internal thoughts and the pattern of narrative, heavy with italics, peppered with exclamation marks and puffed up with anger or frustration can begin to feel repetitious and, as compared with Bonfire this is not such a good novel. That said, I enjoyed it even if I’ll probably not read it twice.
Wolfe not only has a particular gift for language in a literary sense but is also keeps on showing us how able he is to render the vocabulary and accent of each character. Ghislaine’s young brother explains a point to his friend adding the phatic expression, “Nome sayin’, bro’?” and speaks in Haitian Creole deliberately to upset his very Francophile father. And to add to the aural impact Wolfe often renders various accents phonetically to point up their sounds although his ‘Russian’ is a bit too much of a parody.
“No problem, Dr Lewis. Just take her on over there by Harvey on your way out. Jes taker on ovair by Harvey on ya way ayot. His voice got on Magdalena’s nerves. ::::::There has never been a Latino named Harvey, either.::::::”
The story’s piquant and fascinating conclusion is worth reading right through to book just to get to but some of it is uphill! On the overwhelming evidence of this book, the geriatric Tom Wolfe has lost little of his own élan vital. Verdict 7 out 10.