Can the Wolfe'still Growl?

Article excerpt

Byline: Craig Brown

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe Jonathan Cape [pounds sterling]20 ? [pounds sterling]15.99 inc p&p When is a novel not a novel? Fourteen years ago, Tom Wolfe launched a bullish attack on three of his near-contemporaries - John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer - after they criticised his bestselling novel A Man In Full for being journalistic and two-dimensional. 'They've wasted their careers by not engaging with the life around them, by turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history,' he said.

'Instead of going out into the world, instead of plunging into the irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today ... into the raw, raucous, lust-soaked rout with amped-up octophonic tympanum all around them, our old lions have withdrawn, retreated, shielding their eyes against the light, and turned inward to such subject matter as their own little crevice, ie "the literary world"...' Wolfe himself was a comparative newcomer to the art of writing novels. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he had been a journalist, or, more specifically, the most exciting journalist in America, bringing amazing stylistic bravura and wonderfully beady observation to the great social and artistic movements of the day. There was a crackling energy to his prose, much of it produced by the friction between his outlandish rule-breaking style and his unfashionably conservative outlook.

In 1981, he gave up journalism in order to write a novel. Six years later, The Bonfire Of The Vanities appeared, to instant acclaim. It combined Wolfe's zappy rat-a-tat-tat writing style with a broad social panorama of New York, encompassing everyone from street thugs through religious leaders right up to those 'Masters of the Universe' - the bankers who, three decades on, continue to pull society's strings. It remains a tremendous book, timely and prescient, the perfect commentary on the self-seeking excess of that overblown era.

His next novel, A Man In Full, took Wolfe 11 years to complete, much of that time given over to research. Once again, it was peopled by a broad spectrum of society, this time in the Deep South, though its only fully realised character was the burly, philistine Republican billionaire Charles Croker, for whom Wolfe revealed an increasingly soft spot: I suspect he is one of the very few novelists in America who will be voting for Mitt Romney next month.

His next novel was called I Am Charlotte Simmons, and was set among licentious young undergraduates on a smart university campus. Once more, it showed his belief in tackling 'the irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today'. I haven't read it, but it is, by all accounts, a dud: his current publishers avoid mentioning it on the jacket blurb of his latest.

Ah, yes, his latest: Back To Blood. Or, as Wolfe himself might put it: 'Ahhhhh! YEEEEEESSS!!!!! His latest latest latest latest Back to Blood - Baaaack to Blooooodddd!' Wolfe has chosen to set it in Miami, a city that, he reminds us twice, is unique in the world, as half its citizenship are recent immigrants who speak another language. On one level, it examines what he clearly sees as the great illusion of America as a melting pot: in Wolfe's Miami, the blacks resent the Cubans and the Cubans resent the whites, and they all resent the Haitians.

'If you really want to understand Miami,' repeats his fictitious Mayor, 'you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.' The title, Back To Blood, encapsulates this notion that, faced with the turmoil of modern life, everyone is retreating into racial tribalism.

This is an interesting area for study, but sociology is better suited to nonfiction than to fiction. Fiction thrives on the contradictions and complexities of the individual character. Such are the demands and constraints of the novel that a character who is created simply to personify a community will never ring true. …