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.”
One of Wolfe’s favourite words, indeed, is “every”. It is the word that makes an individual representative of the type, the breed, the bloodline: “every cool Cuban cop”, “every Cuban in Miami”, “every man who has a vehicle with commercial lettering on it”, “every single tribesman”, “every bodybuilder in South Florida”, “every Russian in Miami”, “every African-American in Miami”.
These types do, at times, have a certain grotesque grandeur. The Russian oligarch who donates $70 million of probably bogus paintings to a Miami museum gives Wolfe a vehicle for his well-rehearsed disdain for modern art. The horrible celebrity psychologist Norman Lewis allows Wolfe to have a go at the sex-addiction industry. In both cases the targets are legitimate, if very broad. But instead of being deftly flayed they are slowly battered to death.
And too often we have the grotesque without the grand. There has to be a very good reason for a sentence like, “As covertly as possible, Fleischmann lowered his hand to the crotch of his pants and tried to scratch the itch of his herpes pustules.”
But Wolfe perpetrates it as a repeated image: a photograph of the wealthy Fleischmann’s pustule-infested genitalia is one of Lewis’s prized possessions. The satire is would-be medieval – the rotting flesh beneath the rich man’s silk robes – but the effect is mere disgust.
This overstatement is a matter of style as well as substance. Wolfe’s stylistic tricks, once groundbreaking, are by now merely dull. It is not accidental that one of his verbal twitches here is the use of the word “maximum” – from “maximum fresh air” to “maximum air-conditioning”, “maximum display”, “maximum leaders” and “maximum speed” to a “maximum editor”.
His solution to the problem of overfamiliarity is pure Spinal Tap: turn the volume up to 11. There are more repetitions (“rut, rut, rut”; “Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex!”), more SHOUTY CAPITALS, more typographical contortions (“bliiiiIIIISTERSssss”), more funny foreign accents (“Zey speak no Engleesh”; “Dirty traidor peeg!”; “Ees my pleasure”), more, and creepier, slavering over young women’s bodies (“denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris”; “two young breasts yearning to burst free from the little sleeveless white silk dress”).
The one thing Wolfe can’t do to the maximum, or even to the minimum, is ordinary humanity. Good satire needs not just grotesques but also some relatively credible protagonist through which we can approach them. Wolfe tries to give us two of them: the Cuban cop Nestor and his ambitious ex-girlfriend, Magdalena. But he can’t stop patronising them long enough to make them human. In a world where everybody has to hate everybody, not even the author gets to like anyone enough to turn them into a credible person.