Tom Wolfe’s Back To Blood in a post-Floyd world
…if the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
We lurch from the Virus crisis to the Race crisis (and maybe back and forth, back and forth; for how much longer, and to what end; and how much longer and to what end…) Early on in all of this, Camus’ The Plague (for obvious reasons of title and topic … but not much else) started moving some units in a locked down economy. Written as it was during the Nazi occupation of France, it maybe leant itself to a politicised Virus, which is something most people seemed to want from it; we looked back to it just as much as it demanded we look forward.
But after the Lurch to Race crisis … where go we for the novel du jour?
Tom Wolfe’s last novel Back to Blood is a good place to go.
Published in 2012, six years before the author’s death, it is connecting dots that lead us to May and June 2020. Michel Houellebecq is regularly pitched to us as the prophetic writer du jour, and Wolfe is normally the journalist, telling us how things were recently, but back then … that decade we just scraped through… But here, there is a warning built in. If meaning making collapses completely, then we will return to its most basic identifiable tribal form: blood. Back to blood. It’s a defence mechanism, a regression; the total eclipse of all values … bar one.
You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed. You will see Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons. And that’s where Man is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
Two of the criminal events that drive the plot of the novel are chokings: and in both cases the victims are black (though neither is killed) and there is the threat of riots if these things are not handled in the … right way.
Wolfe remains at his most readable when he is in a reportage; his sentences smell like the streets. He can play with shade and make you feel a sea breeze off a page.
The whole place appeared snaggletoothed. The palms were limp and wan … the leaves bore puce-colored splotches. On the building’s facade the little iron balconettes and the aluminum frames for the sliding doors looked as if they were about to fall off and die in a pile.Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
He becomes a little self-indulgent with style … but it is forgivable. Should (or could?) an editor have put him in a figure four leg lock over some of his experiments with punctuation and beat-movement sounds and pacing? Yeah, maybe… But where it needs to be breathless, there is no air; where you get time to breathe, there’s air enough for plenty. But, since we are already touching on French, there’s something Louis-Ferdinand Celine-like about how Wolfe plays with us; but while Celine was in Lyric Comedy, Wolfe is in a kind of Realist Lyricism.
Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is an artifact, like a sword or a gun.Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
In interviews, Wolfe talks about how he wanted to write his next book about immigration, and then he heard how Miami is the first American city to have been taken over politically by the people of a different country, who speak a different language: Cubans. And the Anglos and the Blacks and the Russians and the Haitians and the Mexicans etc etc etc are all the fractured minorities: a melting pot that just gets hotter and hotter … and nothing seems to melt. It’s just the heat, like Wolfe comes back to the heat in Miami, the sun, never waning, and you can’t help thinking about the sun in Camus’ more famous book too.
Oh, Nestor remembers very well! … in high school wrestling this was known as a “full nelson” … illegal because if you pressed down on the base of the skull, you might break your opponent’s neck …Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
Our protagonist is a native born American, but from Cuban immigrant parents. His name is Nestor and the ancient Greek lineage of the name is overtly mentioned in the text at one point. This colours him in the guise of a thoughtful but boastful man who is wise, maybe, but also someone whose efforts of wisdom can lead to tragedy. It is a name for a man of action and a man who wants to be known as a man of action; but who often falls short despite all his capacities. We follow him in all his earnestness trying to be a good cop in bad situations, and we get the vain side of him, and we get the collapses into rage too. But then we get the way he is perceived from the mediums outside his control: the YouTube accounts and the Newspaper reports and it’s hard to not be sympathetic, despite the foibles. And, in the end, while he does the right thing by a person who has wronged him; in the last sentence, he also does the right thing by himself.
The concern was … riots.Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
What does all this mean in a post-Floyd world, on the streets and on the page? Who gets to breathe? Who gets choked out? The BLM movement already existed when Wolfe wrote this novel, but there were no autonomous zones, or toppled statues, or critical mass of riots in the streets. And while Camus was certainly an Ideas-driven artist, Wolfe is more Story-driven … even if ideas come along naturally for the ride. He works through reportage, but it’s reportage of the New Journalism style, that he helped to coin; so it has a point of view driven into it, riveted to the story. And while the rivets do show, there’s no apology made for them. Nestor, for all his bluster, he chooses his tribe (as the term now goes) and he sticks to his guns; he remains a man-in-full, a theme Wolfe returns to. He doesn’t slip into the demand of Blood; he refuses to regress, even if he can’t understand why, or even what. And he rejects the demand of All or Nothing … he understands there are degrees within ideas about such things as Race and Identity and Good and even Evil. There’s a fundamental line in play about being both to thine own self true and recognising the other-than-oneself origin of being true.
“This thing’s like some kind of a panic, like a riot or something. People believe it—they think he’s a fucking martyr. If we say otherwise … then we’re trying to pull off some kind a cheap trick, some kind a cover-up.”Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
Reviewers of the book back in 2012 seem to have felt that Wolfe was being too pessimistic about race relations in America, whereas, of course, it now seems like he was far too optimistic, if anything. They also appear to have a problem with his crudity, when he is using the crudity around him in the Miami and America of his day to demonstrate how corruptive it can be upon a group of people, or between individuals. And he doesn’t shy away from his illustrations; he uses broad brushstrokes in a perfectly legitimate way, and actually could be accused of showing too much restraint, if anything.
Alongside all of this, Wolfe constructs an interesting contemporary addendum to his Long Essay from 1975 called The Painted Word, a work of Art Criticism-criticism that ruffled a few feathers along the way. Things have moved on from purely abstract art to the e-arts and ‘no hands art’ where the person named as the artist of a work never actually touches the work; it’s all done by machine or programs based on concept. The legitimacy of this is deliciously challenged by contrasting it with hands-made art that-is-faked, but becomes less than worthless once it is known to be faked.
A hundred police officers, it looks like, trying to hold back a mob … a mob of dark faces, Negs and every shade of brown, Neg to tan, and in between … they’re yowling and howling,Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe
Can we breathe? Among all of this, is there enough air for us? For all of us? Yes, there is, Wolfe wants us to know from beyond his recent grave.
And while a novel can’t breathe, it still has life.