October 23, 2012

Tom Wolfe's "Back to Blood:" Buckle up, folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride

I just picked up my copy of Tom Wolfe's first new novel in eight years, Back to Blood (a story of 21st Century Miami), and opened it at random. Here's the first paragraph I read (on p. 181):
Now he looked directly at Ghislaine [a Miami girl with a French name, so I'm guessing she's Haitian]. He smiled ... to cover up the fact that he was trying ... objectively ... to assess her face. Her skin was whiter than most white people's. As soon as Ghislaine was old enough to understand words at all, Louisette had started telling her about sunny days. Direct sun wasn't good for your skin. The worst thing of all was to take a sunbath. Even walking in the sun was too much of a risk. She should wear big-brimmed straw hats. Better still, an umbrella. Little girls couldn't very well go around with parasols, however. But if they had to walk in the sun, they should at least have straw hats. She must always remember that she had very beautiful but very fair skin that would burn easily, and she should do anything to avoid sunburns. But Ghislaine figured it out very quickly. It had nothing to do with sunburns ... it had to do with sunbrowning. In the sun, skin like hers, her beautiful whiter-than-white skin, would darken just like that! In no time she could turn Neg ... just like that. 

And that's just the beginning of a racial inventory of her hair, lips, and nose.

Critic James Wood is extremely peeved in The New Yorker at Wolfe's book. Novelists aren't supposed to notice how people look! What kind of characters think about how other characters look? Vulgar characters, that's who!

Wood wants you to know that he much prefers Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which the characters sit around at a luxury health clinic thinking Deep Thoughts for 1,000 pages.

Here's my review of Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons.

48 comments:

Jack Quinn said...

Hmmm...TW poaching on Elmore Leonard's turf. But then, he abandoned Detroit. Charles Willeford made good use of the tarted up dowager too.

On my way to Amazon now.

Jeff said...

I appreciate Tom Wolf.

But just to add, The Magic Mountain is my all time favorite book. It's sublime.

Jeff said...

I appreciate Tom Wolf.

But The Magic Mountain is my all time favorite novel. It's simply marvelous. The book will never be replicated.

ProNorden said...

Ian Fleming, in the Bond books, used to describe characters in detail by the observed traits of whatever ethnic heritage mix they likely were. Made for interesting reading.

FredR said...

Fair enough, but Woods is probably right that all the characters sound the same.

Anonymous said...

WSJ's review

A Wasp With No Sting
Tom Wolfe's take on the ethnic ferment of bilingual Miami leans on creaky stylistic tricks

Reading a Tom Wolfe novel is like spending a very long day at a theme park, several days, really—each of his four novels runs to more than 700 pages.

Scenes racket along like thrill rides powered by the electricity of his prose style, hissing and sparking. Everything is meant to exhilarate and appall—high greed, low squalor—while exclamation points wave like the hands of those roller-coaster riders who take pride in never gripping the safety bars. Wolfeland can be muddy—much wallowing in the human ooze—but it is safe. His is a confected world analogous in its lurid way to Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A.—not too far from reality, but not too close.

Mr. Wolfe has said that the force driving both human life and his own work is the eternal lure of status, but I suspect that what brings his readers through the turnstiles are spectacles of humiliation, the flip side of the status coin.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443768804578038842019324394.html

Anon87 said...

The Onion gave it a "C" rated review

alonzo portfolio said...

On The First 48, they frequently show a Miami homicide investigation. The chief of the dept. is an obese black woman, and seemingly all the detectives are various types of Latino. I don't think I've ever seen a white cop, or anyone light enough to pass as white.

Anonymous said...

Bilingual?! I guess for Miami that means Creole and Spanish. I would have thought "trilingual" but the WSJ must be smarter than me, so, no English? Interesting.

Steve Sailer said...

"Spectacles of humiliation" -- those are the parts of life you try hard to forget, but can't.

That's the most extraordinary parts of "I Am Charlotte Simmons:" how horrible it is to be a self-conscious teenager. It was a remarkable performance by a man in his 70s. Wolfe's daughter must be a saint if she didn't stop speaking to him for five years after that book came out.

It must be awful to be the child of a famous novelist.

Svigor said...

Critic James Wood is extremely peeved in The New Yorker at Wolfe's book. Novelists aren't supposed to notice how people look! What kind of characters think about how other characters look? Vulgar characters, that's who! Wood wants you to know that he much prefers Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which the characters sit around at a luxury health clinic thinking Deep Thoughts for 1,000 pages.

It's much easier to turn the hero/love interest/sidekick/mentor black/brown/Jewish in the movie if there's no description in the book.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... pity there are no comments at the New Yorker. I can see James' point about Wolfe's style, but Wolfe is more interesting than any number of NPR-approved dry lyricists.

The appropriate rejoinder to James' review would be to ask in high camp: 'Sooo, you loved it, right?'

Gilbert Pinfold.

Henry Canaday said...

You mean “The Magic Mountain” in which the hero, Hans Castorp, fell in love with Claudia Cauchat, “the girl with the Kirghiz eyes.”

Owl said...

This is true for the majority of the world's female population. Basically everyone except for Europeans and Americans... and it really doesn't matter how dark they are to begin with, they fear that they will turn even darker.

An example- a young Hindi woman I knew was a lab tech like me; for the most part we worked inside at the bench. But one day we were assigned to work in the greenhouse to collect some samples for about half an hour. 5 minutes into it, she began to wave her arms and in a combination of anger and fear, she started worrying that her arms and face were turning dark. Apparently, according to her, she could already see it happening to her arms. Nevermind that she was naturally darker than most African Americans. She was ready with sunscreen the next time we had to go.

Anonymous said...

Correction: 'James'', should be 'Woods'' above. We are not on first name terms.

GP

Enquiring Minds Wanna Know said...

That's the most extraordinary parts of "I Am Charlotte Simmons:" how horrible it is to be a self-conscious teenager. It was a remarkable performance by a man in his 70s. Wolfe's daughter must be a saint if she didn't stop speaking to him for five years after that book came out.

Any Lesbo action in these novels?

[If so, then what are the page numbers? Thanks.]

unix said...

"This is true for the majority of the world's female population. Basically everyone except for Europeans and Americans... and it really doesn't matter how dark they are to begin with, they fear that they will turn even darker."

I worked with an Ethiopian man who complained that his 3 young children wanted to play outdoors too much. He said it made them darker and ruined their natual beauty.
In old fairytales of European origin, when the beleagured heroine wanted to make herself ugly and unappealing (either to fend off the attentions of a swain, or to disguise herself) she would rub walnut juice into her skin to darken it. I wondered as a kid why on earth this was supposed to be so bad, as long as the walnut juice was evenly distributed. But in the context of the story, it really made her sound icky looking.
I like a suntan as much as anybody, but I never got the extremes to which it has been taken, or the urge to get as dark as possible, when I don't even think most of the girls would have wanted to be all that dark naturally. It was the innate female longing to put on a new garment.

J. said...

James Wood had early promise with "The Broken Estate" but he degenerated into just another PC idiot. Most unfortunate, as he can really write well.

Truckee Man said...

Great writer, a bit cynical for my tastes.

Anonymous said...

From the WSJ review:

An oddity—there is much ethnological analysis of the novel's Latins, WASPs and a lower-class Southern white, but none of the novel's Jews.

Imagine if he actually did address the JQ. Probably wouldn't be able to find a publisher.

john marzan said...

rihanna, paler than some whites?

http://fashionbombdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/rihanna-loud-tour-performance.jpg

http://www.blogcdn.com/www.mydaily.co.uk/media/2011/05/rihanna-met-gala-590.jpg

Anonymous said...

"This is true for the majority of the world's female population. Basically everyone except for Europeans and Americans... and it really doesn't matter how dark they are to begin with, they fear that they will turn even darker." - Men like lighter skinned women on average, still not having rickets is probably more attractive than any percieved loss of lightness.

DaveinHackensack said...

"It's much easier to turn the hero/love interest/sidekick/mentor black/brown/Jewish in the movie if there's no description in the book."

It's easy regardless. The Jewish judge character in Bonfire of the Vanities was played by Morgan Freeman in the awful movie version of the book. It goes both ways too. Ursula Le Guin was pissed that the characters she described as red-brown and other colors in her Earthsea series were cast with Caucasian actors.

DaveinHackensack said...

Got to get this now, so I can read it before Steve posts his review and commenters pile in with spoilers.

DaveinHackensack said...

"An oddity—there is much ethnological analysis of the novel's Latins, WASPs and a lower-class Southern white, but none of the novel's Jews.

Imagine if he actually did address the JQ. Probably wouldn't be able to find a publisher."


I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfe read Steve's blog, but unless he delves into the WN comments here, he may not have even heard of "the JQ". Nevertheless, Wolfe did perceptively sketch a number of Jewish characters in Bonfire of the Vanities and also a few in I am Charlotte Simmons.

Charlotte Simmons has a great set piece featuring an assimilated Jewish-Unitarian dean, a 60s liberal Jewish professor, and the school's "stone German, stone Catholic" basketball coach.

Bonfire has all sorts of good stuff -- the Jewish tycoon who made his fortune ferrying Muslims to Mecca, the Jewish mayor who didn't learn about the existence of WASPs until he got to college (he has a great riff on WASPs versus Irish and Italian Catholics in the "plaques for blacks" scene in the book).

Anonymous said...

"Wolfe's daughter must be a saint if she didn't stop speaking to him for five years after that book came out. "

or utterly shameless, which would be more likely in today's milieu.

"The Jewish judge character in Bonfire of the Vanities was played by Morgan Freeman in the awful movie version of the book."

otoh he beautifully pulled off a really dark shade of red in Shawshank.

Anonymous said...

Yes, The Magic Mountain is utterly remarkable. Remind me again why we are talking about Tom Wolfe?

Actually I like a lot of Tom Wolfe's journalism, and I read 'Bonfire' a long time ago. Liked it a lot for its cheeky insights, but good heavens, what ghastly, sloppy prose. I got the feeling that he didn't really write it, that he dictated it aloud into a tape recorder and had it transcribed. That's not the worst thing in the world if that was what it took to bring the thing to fruition, and after all, his black-hearted honesty about so many things is worth the price of admission, but still.... that prose. Ick.

Hapalong Cassidy said...

Back when I was going through a phase of extreme insecurity due to my half-Asianness, I thought if I tanned more I could pass for Hispanic. Why would I want to do that? I figured Latino men ranked on average much higher on the Alpha male scale than Asian men. There is after all, the "Latin lover" stereotype, as opposed to the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male.

It didn't work, by the way.

Anonymous said...

An example- a young Hindi woman I knew was a lab tech like me; for the most part we worked inside at the bench. But one day we were assigned to work in the greenhouse to collect some samples for about half an hour. 5 minutes into it, she began to wave her arms and in a combination of anger and fear, she started worrying that her arms and face were turning dark. Apparently, according to her, she could already see it happening to her arms. Nevermind that she was naturally darker than most African Americans. She was ready with sunscreen the next time we had to go.

Dude - PLEASE tell me that you scored with that chick.

Cause I can guaran-damn-tee you that she wanted it.

Chicks simply do not confess something so deeply intimate to dudes whom they despise.

"Oh tall handsome Prince Occidental fantasy, would you please rub some suntan oil on my poor tired brown shoulders, which just happen to be glistening with sweat in this torrid hot sun?"

Dude. Score. Eleventy.


Marlowe said...

You may find an Daily Telegraph interview of Wolfe as part of the promotion for this new novel of interest. I found it amusing that the writer quotes Wolfe about the subject matter of the work:

'It’s really a novel about immigration,’ he says. 'That’s how it began. People would say to me, “What are you working on?” And I would say, “Well, I’m doing something on immigration.” I always got the same reply: “Oh, that’s so interesting.” Never a follow-up question. Their heads would fall forward and they would go to sleep like a horse. Hah! But I did find it interesting.

The interviewer proceeds to shift the topic of the conversation onto art and other subjects, ignoring immigration altogether, much as Wolfe's previous interlocutors did.

His next book will deal critically with Darwin's legacy:

This leads him to the subject of his next work. Titled The Human Beast,
it will be a non-fiction book about the theory of evolution, its history, its shortcomings and the ways in which some contemporary neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists have taken it to absurd conclusions. The story begins in the aching, splitting, fevered head of the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. He came up with idea of natural selection on his malarial sickbed while collecting specimens in Malaya, and wrote it down in a letter that reached London before Darwin had published a word.

Sheila said...

Valid and interesting point, Owl. It works both ways, of course. Halle Berry is always shown with her rather unattractive daughter, Nala, having skin as dark as her mother. Although the girl is genetically 75% Caucasian, Berry has said she adheres to the "one drop rule," and is determined the child identify as black and not spend time with her White father.

Quite a few of the Indian and Chinese women here in Texas walk around with umbrellas, just as I saw all the time in Singapore. Just trying to "preserve" what they perceive as their "fair" complexion. I've seen Chinese women with skin close to White, while their public-schooled children are as dark as Indians or Mulattoes (outdoor P.E., summer clothes, etc.).

Cail Corishev said...

"That's the most extraordinary parts of "I Am Charlotte Simmons:" how horrible it is to be a self-conscious teenager."

Sigh. Now I have to bump this one to the top of my to-read list.

Mayhem in Miami said...

alonzo portfolio said..."On The First 48, they frequently show a Miami homicide investigation. The chief of the dept. is an obese black woman…"

Weighing in from Miami here: Anybody attempting to understand Miami has to first process that Miami, Miami-Dade County, and almost all of the surrounding towns are dominated by 2nd and 3rd generation Cubans (the children or grandchildren of those that fled from Castro in the 50's and 60's). You can’t do business with the city or county or make any progress in politics unless you have at least one connected Cuban behind you.

Cubans are like American whites (well, they ARE American whites, but bear with me) in that some are smart, some are imbeciles, some are honest, some are stinkingly corrupt, etc. One thing that makes them and therefore Miami unusual is that Cubans could not care less about blacks or what hurts their feelings. I don’t know if it’s Latin culture or what (Cuba was a slave-owning country so has its own blacks) but they have not bought into white guilt. Not even a little bit. In any white neighborhood or city (e.g. Coral Gables) 2-3 “urban youth” walking around can be guaranteed at least one slow drive by with the window rolled down police car and possibly even some questioning. Blacks misbehaving will be arrested, usually with a good bit of force. The blacks complain about this of course but the difference between Miami and other cities is that nobody cares or really even listens.

Don’t get me wrong – the “problems” of the black community exist here like anywhere else (if you ever find yourself in Liberty City run for your life) but they don’t have political power either directly (holding office) or indirectly (whites that worry about blacks and what they think holding office). Cubans view blacks as regular people and therefore treat them as regular people, complete with consequences going with actions. Sort of refreshing in my view. The stuff Alonzo cites (obese black detective) is unfortunately just part of urban America. Miami may be down south but it’s not beyond the reach of the Justice Dept, EEOC, and the other race-baiting usual suspects.

The other thing about Miami is that it is ground zero for S. Americans fleeing mayhem in their home countries. Lots of wealthy or moderately wealthy Venezuelans, Colombians, etc. These people not only don’t become American or even make any effort to assimilate; they don’t mix with each other. White people are expected to know the difference between a Venezuelan, an Argentine, a Colombian, etc. I’ve made this mistake countless times and been told by a 6-foot tall blonde woman that “I’m Mexican, not Argentine”. Whatever sweetie, you’re all foreign to me.

Miami may offer a vision of the future of America. Lots of mayhem and urban violence but it sort of works and people are segregated. Blacks live in the west, Jews live on the beach and in North Miami, whites live south and in places like Coral Gables, Cubans live everywhere and run it all and aren’t any more corrupt than anywhere else and far less so than say, Chicago. Nobody makes special exemptions for black misbehavior and shortcomings. The obvious counter to this point is that the Cubans are of vastly superior human stock to the mestizos and Indians filing California, Texas, etc. I should also add that I have a concealed weapons permit and when out and about in Miami ALWAYS have a loaded gun with me. Another likely vision of America's future as the police prove less and less able or willing to deal with NAM's.

Svigor said...

It's easy regardless. The Jewish judge character in Bonfire of the Vanities was played by Morgan Freeman in the awful movie version of the book.

Sure, but everyone who read the book knows a switch occurred. If the character had been ambiguous, well, no foul right?

alonzo portfolio said...

@Mayhem:

Thanks for the great post - hope you'll write more often. I should have added that the obese black Miami chief comes off as brighter and less officious than the obese black cops in the show's other cities, such as Memphis and Birmingham. Perhaps illustrative of the relative situation you described.

DaveinHackensack said...

"Sure, but everyone who read the book knows a switch occurred. If the character had been ambiguous, well, no foul right?"

What's funny about the reverse example I mentioned, is that the only one who seemed to be upset about the lead character in Earthsea being cast as white was the author, who apparently was trying to make some sort of statement with her different colored characters. But the meta-point, which she may have missed, is more interesting, I think: color qua color isn't noteworthy; it's noteworthy as a marker for all the other characteristics that normally correlate with it.

In a book set in present-day US, if a writer describes a character as black, You think about typical black people you've known and a picture begins to form in your mind. But if the book is set in some fantasy world, with no connection to this one, and characters are described as "red-black", or whatever, those colors are meaningless, because they don't connote any other characteristics. So, in my mind at least (and I'm guessing, from the lack of reaction, in the minds of most readers), I picture the character as a generic white American guy.

Maybe readers in India or somewhere else pictured the character as a generic Bollywood actor, who knows.

Truth said...

"I don’t know if it’s Latin culture or what (Cuba was a slave-owning country so has its own blacks) but they have not bought into white guilt. Not even a little bit. In any white neighborhood or city (e.g. Coral Gables) 2-3 “urban youth” walking around can be guaranteed at least one slow drive by with the window rolled down police car and possibly even some questioning. Blacks misbehaving will be arrested, usually with a good bit of force."

The other day this was Boston. I think it's been Staten Island and parts of Texas in the past. This "city where the whites are tough enough to stand up to the knee-grows" is almost like the "city where leggy supermodels throw themselves at pasty 5'7 betas."

lit fit said...

"The Jewish judge character in Bonfire of the Vanities was played by Morgan Freeman."

He seems to turn white characters black quite often. In one flick he played two (real) white scientists who had invented a prosthetic tail for a whale.
That made me sit up. It may be getting to the time when somebody is going to have to put a stop to this sort of thing. First off, in real life you don't just go around changing people's race. Would Tom Cruise play Malcolm X?
Secondly, in most books worth being called literature, there's a reason why characters are who they are. And an author whose entire theme is based around race, class, and how it works in popular culture, once you've change the race or ethnicity of a major player, you've changed the book. And you don't do that with a great book. It's obnoxious.

DaveinHackensack said...

"He seems to turn white characters black quite often. In one flick he played two (real) white scientists who had invented a prosthetic tail for a whale."

He was cast as the President of the United States in that meteor movie in '98 or whatever, and inhabited that role plausibly, so taking on two white scientists rolled into one doesn't surprise me.

Mr. Anon said...

"Svigor said...

""It's easy regardless. The Jewish judge character in Bonfire of the Vanities was played by Morgan Freeman in the awful movie version of the book.""

Sure, but everyone who read the book knows a switch occurred. If the character had been ambiguous, well, no foul right?"

The whole point of the book was the ethnic and class distinctions in 1980s New York City. If they make the jewish judge black, they may as well have made Sherman McCoy a jewish CPA instead of a WASP bond trader (though Tom Hanks wasn't very good in the role). Actually, Freeman wasn't the only miscasting - they made the dissolute english yellow journalist......into Bruce Willis. He should have been played by Gary Oldman.

DaveinHackensack said...

Bruce Willis was absolutely the worst casting decision in the book.

Re the judge, casting Morgan Freeman wasn't an entirely stupid idea. The judge is sort of the moral center of the book, the one guy whose only interest is in doing what's right. My guess is that Wolfe made him a Jew for two reasons:

1) Jewish judges were fairly common in NYC.

2) An honorable Jewish character offsets the dishonorable ones (the DA Weiss, the mayor, the ADA Kramer).

The producers probably figured that a higher percentage of blacks would watch the movie than had read the book, so instead of assuaging Jews by making the honest judge a Jew, they made him a black man, to offset the dishonorable black characters (the thug, Rev. Bacon, Rev. Bacon's lieutenant).

Anonymous said...

"First off, in real life you don't just go around changing people's race. Would Tom Cruise play Malcolm X?"

or a woman of color play hitler, who after being denied affirmative action in art school(by a high-brow WASP of course) despite her amazing ethnic art, enlists brothas for her war against the hetero white male culture.
our own Truth could play as the first general.

Mayhem in Miami said...

Troof said "the other day this was Boston. I think it's been Staten Island and parts of Texas in the past. This "city where the whites are tough enough to stand up to the knee-grows" is almost like the "city where leggy supermodels throw themselves at pasty 5'7 betas."

Clearly the possibility that somebody somewhere may stand up to a black upsets you - we all remember your bleating about Trayvon getting stood up to. Funny enough, you also like to insist that people don't need to stand up to "kneegrows" since you don't violently misbehave any more other groups. But next time read a little closer before shifting into smart-ass jive mode though. Cops handing out wood shampoos to misbehaving "kneegrows" happens everywhere all the time. The fact prisons are filled to capacity with blacks would seem to provide evidence of this.

The difference with Miami as far as I can tell is that the power structure pays no attention to the usual black whining over having there be consequences for their actions. Also as I said, whites aren't standing up to the "knee grows", they're mostly living as far away from them as possible.

This is what you have always failed to grasp Troof: whites in the aggregate choose to tolerate blacks. There is nothing stopping whites from choosing to no longer tolerate blacks - besides other whites.

Truth said...

" we all remember your bleating about Trayvon getting stood up to."

Trayvon wasn't "getting stood up to" he was standing up to someone who was following him around.

"This is what you have always failed to grasp Troof: whites in the aggregate choose to tolerate blacks. There is nothing stopping whites from choosing to no longer tolerate blacks - besides other whites."

Cool, tell your leggy supermodel wife I said hi.

David said...

Mayhem in Miami said

"wood shampoos"

Good gravy, you can write. Have you considered having a blog?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfe read Steve's blog, but unless he delves into the WN comments here, he may not have even heard of "the JQ"

Wolfe's wife is Jewish. Even if he reads this blog, I doubt he sympathizes with the WN Jew-haters here.

Anonymous said...

Trayvon wasn't "getting stood up to" he was standing up to someone who was following him around.


You mean Zimerman. Zimmerman was walking back to his truck when he was attacked from behind by Martin who was stalking him.

john marzan said...

nathalie emmanuel, black or white?

http://www.hashtagpress.net/2012/07/game-of-thrones-season-3-new-faces.html