On May 14, 2018, the irreplaceable chronicler of postmodern and post-millennial American decadence, Tom Wolfe, slipped from this world into the next. One of the master craftsmen of “Gonzo journalism,” or what Wolfe himself would call in his 1973 collection of the same name, The New Journalism,
Wolfe, like his more radical journalistic counterpart in the Aquarian age, Hunter S. Thompson, perfected the art of the late 20th century American cultural polaroid. With his keen nose for everyday America with its queer combination of eccentric debauchery and straight laced WASPishness, Tom Wolfe was adroitly able, in both his works of nonfiction as well as his novels, to provide America with a blurred but smartly correct snapshot of herself as a country.
Like Thompson, Wolfe began his journalistic career seemingly as a man of the New Left, inserting himself within the new countercultural movement. While the left-wing (but ardently pro-Second Amendment) Thompson was embedded with the Hell’s Angels, narrowly escaping with his life with a collage of odd stories for 1966’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Wolfe was hanging out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters recording tales of drug cocktails and wild road trips to Mexico for his first great nonfiction work The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968).
Unlike Thompson, however, Wolfe was more of a fly on the wall, curiously chronicling the large scale temper tantrum by 1960s’ radicals against the newly air conditioned stuffiness of Eisenhower Era into which they were born. Having “been there” himself, Wolfe became keenly aware that the counterculture and social revolution of the 60s was marked more by hypocrisy, hatred, and self-indulgence than by “peace, love, and happiness.”
Unfortunately, although smart enough to realize the revolution did not go as planned, Hunter S. Thompson never left his acid trip and committed suicide in 2005, while Wolfe, not quite raging “against the dying of the light,” was able to mellow and lived until 88 years of age. Moreover, while Thompson maintained a fierce and wild, albeit reclusive persona holed up in his compound in Colorado, Wolfe played the part of the genteel WASPish defender of morals—albeit himself marked by the definitively American Puritanical hypocrisy.
One of Wolfe’s central preoccupations was Americanness and the strange ability of the United States to assimilate various disparate ethnicities and hold them in a shared tension. Wolfe felt at home as an American and among Americans regardless of their ethnicity or religious background even and perhaps especially when these ethnic groups clashed and bumped against one another in struggles for both social justice and political power.
In his first novel, 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (originally released as magazine serial in Rolling Stone à la Charles Dickens), Wolfe depicts the rattle of “Master of the Universe,” WASPs, ethnic Catholics, Jews, and black Americans amidst the roar of Wall Street in the shadow of the capital-friendly Reagan administration. In the book, Irish Catholic policemen proudly adopting the appellation “harps” and “donkeys” (due to their dedication to hard work) share a deeply divided but nonetheless deeply American New York City with “Saturday do-it-yourselfers” middle class whites, as well as “Wasp charity-ballers sitting on … mounds of inherited money.” These words, coming from the mouth of a corrupt, wily black preacher named Reverend Reginald Bacon, who is modeled on Al Sharpton, are meant, from the hand of the puckish Tom Wolfe, more in good humor than in malice toward wealthy WASPs, a coterie of which Wolfe himself was proudly a member.
There is another wild pontification from Reverend Bacon, which came back to haunt Wolfe in his last novel. As a way of threatening the mayor, Reverend Bacon catalogues the post 1965 Immigration Act demographic changes that had transformed New York’s boroughs even as early as the 1980s:
It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Columbians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon—por qué pagar más! The Bronx—the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little Freeport up there! Pelham Parkway—keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn—your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope—little Hong Kongs, that’s all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park—whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island!
Amidst all this bluster in which a preacher’s training has been harvested for the sacred cause of identity politics, Wolfe gives us a glimpse into the future of America, a future that Wolfe himself was only able to peer into for much of his life. As Wolfe correctly notes, this new immigrant grouping would provide a ready supply of votes for the Democratic Party and would elect officials who would end up transforming the Democrats from the party of labor to the part of identity politics—Reverend Bacon boasts that soon there will be a “Reverend Bacon for mayor, and a City Council and a board of Estimate with a bunch of reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other!”
Reverend Bacon’s threats did not immediately come to fruition as the demographic and social milieu of New York and other major American cities went through various stages of white flight, immigration, and emigration as well as the unexpected (at least in the 80s) process of gentrification. Nonetheless, the world of increasing ethnic diversity and subsequent ethnic tensions that Tom Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon prophesized did slowly begin to materialize and take shape in the United States.
A Man in Full, Wolfe’s magisterial 1998 chronicle the of the tremendous turnover and boom that affected Atlanta after the 1996 Summer Olympics is fundamentally about how a mushrooming Southern city, nicknamed “Chocolate Mecca,” was able to hold together both blacks and whites. In one of the more humorous and brilliant portions of the novel (and there are plenty), the Afro-Centric mayor explains to his fraternity brother the more naïve and gentle Roger “Too White” White II the structure of late 20th century Atlanta politics. After asking Roger if he has ever unraveled a baseball, Mayor Jordan expounds:
It’s not a particularly illuminating exercise, but I used to enjoy doing it when I was ten or eleven years old. After you take the white horsehide cover off, you come across a ball of white string, or it’s like string. There about a while of the stuff, once you start unraveling it, all this white string. Finally you get down to the core, which is black, a small hard black rubber ball. Well, that’s Atlanta. The hard core, if we’re talking politics, are the 280,000 black folks in South Atlanta. They, or their votes control the city itself. Wrapped all around them, like all that white string, are three million white people in North Atlanta and all those counties, Cobb, Dekalb, Gwinnett, Forsyth, Cherokee, Paulding…
This memorable passage encapsulates the genius of Tom Wolfe and his ability to place a stethoscope on the beating heart of 20th century America. Despite his much publicized feuds with left wing race hustlers like Al Sharpton, Tom Wolfe had a profound feel for the pulse black of America and black Americans, who, no matter how liberal nonetheless, being American, use the typically American method of narrative yarn spinning with sports tales—especially baseball stories (interestingly, one of the many very awkward elements of Barack Obama’s presidency was his inability to use baseball metaphors).
The Atlanta of 1998 just like the America of 1998 slowly has begun to fade away. In the 21st century Atlanta is no longer a black and white city or a Protestant City with prominent Catholic and Jewish elements, but rather, for better or worse, a truly global city with the attendant benefits and downsides of being a microcosm of the diversity of the world itself.
In Wolfe’s last novel and 2012 swan song, Back to Blood, the “man in white” attempts to grasp this new “post-American” America by crafting a portrait of one of the many microcosms of possible American futures: Miami, Florida. Back to Blood was released during the waning halcyon days of the Obama Administration when the hope for a “More Perfect Union” for America had been shaken by a president whose promises of healthcare for all, initiating world peace, and of bringing about a racial harmony ultimately proved to be hollow.
Although championed (and scorned) by its critics as a book about the racial fragmentation of America, Back to Blood is not so much a novel about race, as it is a book about the decadence and simmering decline of a city that is too vital and too preoccupied with money-making and pleasure (like much of America) to attend to its social issues, which, in the end, as is evident in so much of Wolfe’s writing, may not be as bad as liberals think.
Set in red hot Miami, one of the first global American cities in which the demographic tipping point has been reached—making it into a “minority-majority city”—Back to Blood is woven from the tapestry of a host of lives drawn from multiple echelons of Miami life. There is a bittersweetness to Back to Blood that is reflective of the ironic bittersweetness of the Obama era. On the surface the remnants of the liberal WASP establishment were still honeymooning in the glory days of electing the first black president. The denizens of the haute bourgeois New Left, whom Wolfe himself had so brilliantly lampooned in the 1970 masterpiece Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, had finally obtained the radical Puritan turned Yankee dream of creating a new Jerusalem of equality upon earth. Outside of the book’s black and rough and tumble working class white characters, Wolfe feels most home among the haut culture WASPs with whom we begin the novel.
At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Ed and Mac Topping, two Gen X Anglos living out of place in the Spanish speaking Floridian port city. The prologue, “We een Mee-AH-mee Now,” is typical Tom Wolfe and is a brilliant exposé of the well-mannered left-leaning WASPs who are nervously but humorously unaware of how much America had indeed changed.
Ed, or Edward Topping V, editor of the dwindling English edition of the Miami Herald is being chauffeured by his wife Mac in a “ ludicrously cramped” “Mitsubishi Green Elf Hybrid,” an odd little car that only white people would be foolish enough to buy, on their way to Balzac’s restaurant to meet “six Anglos, real Anglos like themselves, American Protestant Anglos . . . ” for dinner.
In search of the great symbol of anxious American restlessness, the parking spot, Mac is cut off by a “beautiful . . . stylish, chic, and rich” Latina driving a “Ferrari 403” who steals the spot. Mac’s rational Northern European appeals to “manners” and honesty do not seem to work, nor does her WASPish appeal to the force of Americanization work. Mac shouts, “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!”
The sassy Latina, well aware that Miami is no longer White Anglo Saxon Protestant Country—nor has it been for quite some time—lets Mac know the bitter truth in tortured Spanglish, “We een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Mac and even Ed all but disappear for most of the novel, like “the dying genus” of Wolfe’s satirical phrasing, they represent taking a back seat as the primary WASP protagonist, the dapper Yalie gumshoe reporter John Smith, who functions as a much younger version of one of the grandfathers of bloodhound “Gonzo journalism,” Tom Wolfe himself.
However, Miami of 2012 is not the Haight Ashbury of 1968 or even 1984 pinstriped New York City. Miami, in Back to Blood is a world in which Tom Wolfe, for the first time in his career, appears out of place.
As a profound symbol of the new America represented by Miami, Wolfe introduces the book’s character, the muscular and macho but ultimately sheepish and kind hearted Cuban American police officer Nestor Comancho who is uneasily working with two apparently Irish American relics of another world of big city American law enforcement, the simply named “Kite” and “McCorkle,” members of the Miami PD, on whose appearance Nestor revealingly comments, “The blond ones!—with blue eyes!—they made you think americanos in spite yourself.”
This brief reflection touches on one of the central themes of Black to Blood, which itself is a reflection on the wider early 21st century political climate in America in which many (or at least some) of the new Americans feel awkwardly American while the older American immigrants themselves feel awkwardly out of place.
While (almost) mastering the minds of Northerners and Southerners, Christians and Jews, Irish and black Americans, Wolfe—though never failing to be insightful—seems slightly out of place in mapping the thoughts of a working class Cubano. Nestor, to whom Wolfe refers as the “Knight of Hialeah” in homage to Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, is a profound symbol not only of the new Americans but also of the madcap world of the new America. Nestor’s Quixotic quests in the Obama era world of Miami involve an arrest of an illegal immigrant from Cuba, which earns him the scorn of his family and fellow Cubans; tussles with an on again, off again girlfriend aptly named Magdalena; a fight in a crack house that risks sparking a race riot; as well as the take down of an international Russian art forging operation.
Wolfe is more at home detailing the tortured love lives of Jewish billionaire snowbirds as well as the typically American machismo of the black chief of police chief who ultimately is forced to defend Nestor from the Cuban-American mayor looking for a fall guy. It is in this terrain of earlier generations of Americans that Wolfe feels most at home, both in his satirical as well as his (little discussed) deeply humanistic love of everyday Americans and their often humorous foibles. At the same time, there is a sense of moral and almost theological urgency and uneasiness in Black to Blood that is uncharacteristic of Wolfe’s other works.
In addition to awkwardly waging a cold cultural war via the polyglot press and engaging in odd power plays during tense office situations as well as in scuffles in the street, the primary manner in which these disparate people interact in the novel is via a host of ultimately unsatisfactory love affairs. In addition to a rocky romance with Nestor, Magdalena dates the manipulative sex therapist Norman Lewis whom she leaves for a tryst with the scary but alluring Russian oligarch Sergei Korolyvov. Indeed, perhaps more than any of Wolfe’s other works, Back to Blood is saturated with the strip clubs, wild parties, and risqué cinema that define Vice City in the minds of so many Americans.
At the same time, rather than being a celebration of the flesh or even a moralizing rebuke to post-”Summer of Love” America, Back to Blood, slightly in the vein of American existentialist novels like those of Walker Percy, poses a deep question about the meaning and purpose of America that transcends the confines of culture or identity.
The novel ends with Nestor dialing a phone number and announcing to a yet unnamed interlocutor, “Well, I have some good news. The Chief gave me my badge and my revolver back. I’m reinstated; I’m a real cop again.” The reader, of course, thinks that this modern day Cubano Don Quixote will return to Magdalena, his dulcinea from Little Havana.
However, we learn in the closing of the novel that it is Ghilsaine, the café au lait daughter of the Francophile Haitian Professor Lantier, who announces with some hesitation and exaggeration, “That’s…so…wonderful…”
Wolfe’s phrasing here suggests to us that this will be yet another postmillennial cross-cultural fling and temporary “hook up” in the great and unhappy tropical melting pot of Miami. This deflating and perhaps disappointing satirical irony, which, despite being counterbalanced with hints of the almost Christian morality that mark much of Wolfe’s work is less satisfying in Back to Blood than it is in his other novels.
While his 2004 lampoon of the outrageous debauchery of 21st-century college life, I Am Charlotte Simmons—which makes John Landis’s wild celebration of college life in “Animal House” (1978) seem tame in comparison—presented the possibility that all the frat boyish hedonism would end (or at least taper out) after graduation, Back to Blood leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that some deeper moral foundation is needed to shore up a country worn out by material excess and singed by burning ethnic tension.
Admittedly, Tom Wolfe will not be remembered as a “world historical” or epoch-forming American novelist like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Herman Melville, but he will be remembered as a great American novelist precisely because he was able to snapshot the greatness of America, a greatness that is inseparable from the at times rough coarseness of America—a fact that Wolfe, a high brow writer of middle brow literature, encapsulated in his own life and work, and throughout his career, Tom Wolfe showed us that it just may be possible in this big country for disparate tribes to maintain a consonant peace as Americans.