Monthly Archives: October 2014

Tom Wolfe’s latest novel


Tom Wolfe has made inroads into both the non-fiction and fiction worlds.  The non-fiction lay more in the earlier part of his career, e.g.  The Right Stuff (1979), an engrossing read about the test pilots who laid the groundwork for the U.S. space program.  Wolfe’s breakthrough into fiction came with The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).  This book sold well, and having much enjoyed it, I believe it deserved to!  To quote Wikipedia, this novel is about “ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed”; it is set in the New York City of the 1980’s.

Wolfe’s next novel was A Man in Full (1998); this time, the setting is Atlanta.  I confess being disappointed by this book, and I didn’t finish it.  (However, since I enjoyed Back to Blood a lot, I might go back and give this one another try.)

After that came I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004).  This time, my reaction was very favorable; for details, see my review.  The setting here is a college campus.

Back to Blood (2012) is Wolfe’s newest novel.  He is back to his city locales; this time it is Miami.  As with any Wolfe novel, you have to be prepared for the over-the-top, in-your-face writing style.  You don’t see it all the time, but you certainly do at the very beginning:

SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down 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 love it love driving the boat SMACK throttle wide open forty-five miles an hour against the wind SMACK bouncing bouncing its shallow aluminum hull SMACK from swell SMACK to swell SMACK to swell SMACK toward the mouth of Biscayne Bay to “see about the man on top of the mast” SMACK “up near the Rickenbacker Causeway”—

As with Bonfire, we can list “ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed” as themes for this book.  But being Miami, there is a unique demographic profile.  Cubans wield much political power, and are virulently anti-Castro.  Blacks and Russians, prominently featured, add to the mix.  Of course there are Anglos (whites), but in Miami (Wolfe’s Miami, at least) they only constitute a minority.

As is common in Wolfe’s writing, status is a crucial element in the lives of his characters.  Here is how the police chief strives to make a powerful impression:

He lifted his arms out to the side with bent elbows, thrust his shoulders back as far as they would go, and took a deep breath.  He looked like he was stretttttching after being cooped up in the car.  In fact, he was forcing his chest to bulge out full-blown.  He bet that made him look twice as mighty… but of course he couldn’t very well ask anybody, could he…

How different is this from a cat trying to look fearsome by arching its back, and making its fur stand on end?

Wolfe has a keen eye for trendiness.  He sticks the needle in by taking things just one step further than they actually are.  (Or perhaps he doesn’t?)  Witness this exchange of conversation at the Art Basel show:

“How did Doggs learn how to work in glass?  He doesn’t work in glass or anything else.  Don’t you know about No Hands art and De-skilled art?”

“Oh, I guess I’ve heard about it—but no, not really,” Norman said lamely, or lamely for Norman.

A.A. said, “No cutting-edge artist touches materials anymore, or instruments.”

“What do you mean, instruments, A.A.?” said Fleischmann.

“Oh, you know,” she said, “paintbrushes, clay, shaping knives, chisels… all that’s from the Manual Age.  Remember painting?  That seems so 1950s now.  Remember Schnabel and Fischl and Salle and all that bunch?  They all seem so 1950s now, even though their fifteen minutes came in the 1970s.”

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A jolt from Jane Austen

raison et sensibilite 1828 charles-abraham chasselet

Near the beginning of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Chapter IX), young Marianne Dashwood meets the dashing Willoughby when he comes upon her with a sprained ankle, and carries her home in rough weather.

Austen’s vocabulary is usually rather refined, as befits the well-bred ladies and gentlemen she writes about.  But look at the end of this passage, where two old and plain words resonate perfectly with Willoughby’s bedraggled condition.

Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at [Willoughby and Marianne’s] entrance, and while the eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration which equally sprung from his appearance, he apologized for his intrusion by relating its cause, in a manner so frank and so graceful that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.

She thanked him again and again; and, with a sweetness of address which always attended her, invited him to be seated. But this he declined, as he was dirty and wet.

This kind of plain-spokenness, just where it is called for, is one reason Miss Austen is on my short list of the greatest novelists.

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