Monday, 3 December 2012

Tom Wolfe's Hand Grenade

Every year on a hot summer night in Miami there’s a massive boat party, at the exclusive Fisher Island resort during the Columbus Day Regatta. Here, half naked young men and women strut, dance, and have intercourse on their decks to pulsating music and watch porno films projected on a massive sail as tall as a building. And whose eyes do we witness this through? None other than a famous sex psychologist who treats rich porn addicted clients. And he’s not there for research! This Wasp psychologist is glued to the scene, as if he himself is addicted. He is accompanied by his much younger Cuban girlfriend, who is repulsed by the event. She is beginning to realize that her eminent boyfriend, who was just interviewed on 60 Minutes, may be nothing more than a controlling status addicted slime-ball.

This is one of many unnerving scenes in Tom Wolfe’s book, Back to Blood where he eviscerates Miami, in typical Wolfe style, a style that dominates and is held in disrepute by the literary community. Recent reviews of his latest book totally neglect most of the subject matter; race relations in the U.S., Internet porn addiction, and Wolfe’s secondary, if not primary subject, status obtained by association with modern art and money, big money. 

Reviewers for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Globe and Mail treat the subject matter as if it is of passing concern, apparently because Wolfe’s writing style is beyond the pale, and Wolfe himself is a right winger who once voted for George Bush (Dear God!!). He also got an award for writing the worst sex scene in his last book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s enough to scare away a young writer from a style of writing that actually works. 

Wolfe is a Grandaddy of the New Journalism, and his influence is historic. All the more reason to knock him down, one might suppose. But imagine a young writer, new to the scene, who has something to say, who might have insight into something the rest of us have no idea exists, but because the form doesn’t appeal to the critics, to the literary community, she will be toast. And we, the public, would miss out. What price style over subject? What price modernism?

A problem with Back to Blood is that one is constantly aware that it is a Tom Wolfe book. He has such a history and personality that if you know something of either they tend to get in the way of enjoying the read, and it becomes more difficult to make an accurate assessment of the work itself. So, for the uninitiated, the book might be quite enjoyable.

Ever-present throughout are Wolfe’s known interests:  architecture, modern art, urban wear, culture clashes, manly stoicism, women’s niblets, heavy accents, status battles, generational clashes, and neuroscience, amongst others. And his writing style screams ::::::TOM WOLFE!!!:::::: You don’t have to read a page to know it’s Tom Wolfe!! you only have to look ::::::AND MAN!! IT’S FUN TO WRITE LIKE THIS!!:::::: 

Wolfe has battled it out with the likes of Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving, who took him to task after his book, the massive A Man in Full, sold millions of copies, and after he hit the cover of Time Magazine holding his cane and wearing his distinct white suit. Wolfe referred to these eminent writers as his three stooges. Wolfe was accused of writing King Kong popular fiction books, rather than Literature, with a capital L, not even “literature in a modest aspirant form...” says Updike. 

Wolfe defends his work as informed fiction where facts drive the imagination, much like Balzac, Zola, Steinbeck, and Dickens. These fellows did research. They each had millions of readers in their lifetimes who were eager to find out what was going on in their world, in the Here and Now. Like these preeminent writers Wolfe left the office, the philosopher’s couch, to get the facts that would inspire the imagination. Wolfe imbeds himself into a culture that is not his own, makes unique relationships, and does an immense amount of research to pool it all together in the final work. A documentary film was made to accompany the launch of Back to Blood, partly to show how dedicated Wolfe is to his research. 

As a result of this research, his books are more accessible and noteworthy than his detractor’s. Wolfe’s books are about the world, the “human beast,” as he likes to say, complete with economics, politics, race relations, etc., rather than a limited psychological portrayal of a handful of neurotic characters stuck in one location, often an imaginary location, where modernist techniques are used to bury thoughts, actions, and dialogue in an aesthetic mist. In fact, turn to the last few pages of contemporary novels and most will have some kind of actual mist or mist-like reference. This is done to say that life is complicated, and people are not stereotypes spouting out cliches, either in action or in words. People are deep and multifaceted, leading morally relativistic lives. And readers are fools to believe that there can be tight happy endings.  No kidding! Really?!

Wolfe has proven himself over and over, creating works in a genre known as The New Journalism, writing fact based articles using the techniques of fiction to fully grip the reader and take them on a ride. You would think the techniques themselves are pretty standard fair for novelists: lots of realistic dialogue, scene by scene construction, contrasting third person points of view, description of status symbols, and using other people’s “Identikit” to access their real emotions. 

Wolfe has described these techniques as the electricity that keeps readers reading. So did the pre-eminent Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. In 1944 he noted that as soon as literature had reached its zenith with Tolstoy and Dostoevski, literature veered off course to lose its “spritual potential and the directness of expression” which to the literary community at the time in Europe “seemed like a revelation of how the mixture of realism and tragedy might at last attain its true fulfillment.” 

Wolfe’s and Auerbach’s historical understanding of changes in literature from the 1800s to the 1950s are very similar. Today the techniques that made realism electric, with some spiritual depth, are minimized by contemporary writers regardless of effectiveness in favour of making their works less accessible in order to appeal to the writing community, not the public. As in the visual arts, if the work is too accessible it will appeal to the ignorant masses. And where’s the class in that? The literary history parallels art historian Alan Gowans’ understanding of art history, and Martha Bayles (A Hole in Our Sole) in music. They relate why artists of all stripes aren’t happy with appealing to the masses. There’s less prestige in doing so, and it won’t get you into “Intellectual Byzantium,” which is heaven for artists, otherwise known as getting into the history books, which is controlled by very few. In Wolfe’s case critics are so derisive and object so forcefully that Wolfe declares, quoting Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest to much, methinks.”

In Back to Blood, he denies his critics the ability to call him an extreme conservative, as Back to Blood could have been written by a left leaning social critic. This book is one big humorous hand-grenade shoved into the mouths of depraved Americans, not the common man, or those reliant on the welfare state (Mitt Romney’s 47%), but at extremely wealthy Americans, the one percent. 

Wolfe depicts Miami as a porn-soaked anti-society of shallow hedonists who charge forth and wallow in status, derived from the ubiquitous modern art scene. The millionaires and billionaires buy the art, while the best the middle class can do to participate is to wander the galleries and museums afterwards and buy the coffee table books. 

Wolfe’s critics avoid the subject matter. It’s too much to deal with. It’s all too damn human, and low, without dimension or reflection. And more may be the point, it attacks the very people who fund modern art, who keep Intellectual Byzantium alive for the annointed few. 

And another point to make the literary community bristle, Wolfe may be saying that the human beast is pretty easy to read. Maybe a lot of us are stereotypes, unable to reflect, making us one-dimensional. Wolfe is asking, have people in Miami become cliches of a stereotyped vision of themselves, working hard to maintain a reality based on something as non-existent as a true blood line? And will this happen to the rest of us?

And Wolfe loves to trash the contemporary art world. Where status climbing is the real goal in Miami, modern art’s primary function is to act as a psychological wedge between us and them. What Wolfe tries to do is show us how it works, in ugly porno-detail, without love. It’s sometimes hard to take. You may wince, but it’s not the writing style that will put you off. As an inveterate reporter Wolfe has most likely witnessed what he’s writing about. Thus the hedonist boat party, or to witness millionaires and billionaires tussle in a rush (wearing running shoes!) to get at the best art (or worst) and spend 17 million dollars in 15 minutes ::::::IT’S TRUE!!!:::::: You get to gawk at the folly of the rich man, the Wall Street marauders and their morally corrupt supporters. And these people are just as likely to be porn addicts as an 18 year old jerking off in his parent’s basement ::::::SLAM!!:::::: or end up wasted, financially and mentally, on a TV reality show ::::::DOUBLE SLAM!!::::::

And the real star of the book is not a typical modern literary character. He’s not a novelist, or an actor, or a performance artist ::::::Dear God!!!::::::  he’s a cop. The guy has a real job. ::::::Where’s the literature in that?:::::: His name is Hector Camacho. Nor is Hector wealthy, or a social climber. He’s a cuban cop, whose sole interest is in doing a good a job, with moral fibre. And he is likable. He has no artistic hobbies to save him. He likes to climb a rope at a gym ::::::There’s no art here!::::: And as a part-time body builder his love of rope climbing is instrumental in saving the life of a cuban refugee which makes Hector famous. When he saves the refugee he also steals the refugee’s ability to get immigrant status. The refugee will be sent back to Cuba. 

As a result, Hector is persona non grata in the Cuban community. His own family shuns him. But the Miami Herald, all Wasp, sees a good story in Hector, making him famous by coming to his defense, which complicates his life and causes him to join forces with a young eager reporter, with questionable morals. Meanwhile, the female protagonist, Hector’s former love interest, Magdelena, comes to learn that social climbing has its price. 

Sadly, you won’t get to know any of what Wolfe is really up to because the writing community has decided that you shouldn’t hear about it. They’re tired of the old guy standing in the spotlight. They’re a little bit afraid of what he is writing about, and they have a very hard time proving him wrong, so it’s better to ignore him. 

Wolfe, however, may have one more book up his sleeve. He’s 81, but he’s got the title: The Human Beast. And wherever the location, he’s sure to find it’s heart and show it to us.

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