Making heavy weather in Miami
Fintan O'Toole reviews Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Cape, 720pp, £20
The world view underlying Tom Wolfe’s fictions has always been Thomas Hobbes’s “war . . . of every man against every man”. Or, as Wolfe has a citizen tell the mayor of Miami, where Back to Blood is set, “If you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”
The scene may shift from the New York of Bonfire of the Vanities to the Atlanta of A Man in Full and now on to Miami, but there is really only one city in Wolfe’s books – the same seething cauldron of greed, lust and hypocrisy.
Wolfe’s insistence on specific detail, his much-imitated calibration of clothes and cars and furnishings, is a kind of nervous tic, for there is nothing specific about his cities: they are all just manifestations of his medieval mindset, in which the city itself is a mere enactment of original sin. Wolfe is Savonarola without the religion, Hobbes without the ruler who can come along and impose order on the chaos.
Everything is going to hell in a handcart, and all that is left is a primal struggle of the races. As Wolfe’s avatar Ed puts it in the prologue, explaining the book’s title, “All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds – Back to blood!” Blood, lest we misunderstand, means “the bloodlines that course through our very bodies”. It makes sense, in Wolfe’s world view, that whenever a word like “tolerant” or “diversity” or “community” intrudes, it comes with an inbuilt sneer.
Wolfe’s people are, in fact, 99 per cent animal, the females playing out the basic instincts of sexual display and the males relentlessly seeking status. As a literary zoologist, his main interest is in taxonomy, the classification of his specimens into their proper orders of class, race, gender, ethnicity and age. He does this with enormous enthusiasm, but it is reductive and, therefore, boring.
Spending time in these pages is like being, for far too long, in the company of an obsessive collector whose overbearing interest in his samples is seldom leavened by the one thing that would make it fascinating – love. There’s not a moment in the novel when you think that Wolfe cares more for any of the characters, or indeed for the entire city of Miami, than he would for a speck of dirt on one of his trademark cream suits.
Even Wolfe knows that his people are cliches – indeed, they know it themselves. The Wasp editor of the Miami Herald, Edward T Topping IV, is “an ideal-typical member of the breed” who realises that his name is “White Anglo Saxon Protestant to the maximum, to the point of satire”. Ed reflects that, in the schoolyard, “boys immediately divide into two types. Immediately! There are those who have the will to be daring and dominate, and those who don’t have it.”