The greatest writers are those who understand human nature and the way different people behave in different circumstances. Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy… These men did far more than invent stories and put them on paper or stage; these were deeply intuitive and meticulous analysts of how human beings think and act. That’s what gives their writings endurance and lasting worth, because even though technology might change the world, we can see that man is still trapped in the mortal shell which constrains his behavior into certain patterns.
Tom Wolfe’s latest book Back to Blood is a powerhouse volume that will endure; there’s no other way to say it. In 720 pages, there’s room to explore different traits common in our anemic time, and yet Tom Wolfe manages somehow to surpass even those large boundaries.
Here’s a quick list of the characters whose mentalities are laid bare in clear terms:
- A 2nd generation Cuban refugee-turned Miami cop who tries to walk the tightrope between upholding the laws of an American city and maintaining his reputation in the Cuban-refugee community.
- A nurse from little-cubana Haileah (a district of Miami) who wants to live a cultured life with a strong, confident, and connected companion. Try as she might, she constantly feels like a fish out of water and ends up with men who use her for their own ends.
- A young, politically-correct, white reporter that is intensely cautious about offending anyone, because he truly believes it is wrong to give offense, and yet he can’t help himself, because people are thin-skinned and any interaction is bound to set them off anyway.
- A psychiatrist whose specialty is the treatment of pornography addiction. His obsession with climbing the social ladder, and his steep fees for treatment, bring him to break his oath and help one patient maintain his addiction, so that the doctor can keep his access to the high life.
- A police chief trapped between doing what is right and keeping his career. He knows he was appointed by the Mayor because of his skin color, and yet he knows he is the best man for the job. His skin color was supposed to suppress problems, and yet he cannot just let race dominate his decisions, if he is to do justice.
- A Russian billionaire-(editing out further description because of spoilers) who donated $70 million worth of paintings to a Miami art museum. He’s on everyone’s A list right away; the Americans love him for his generosity, the Cubans admire him for his wealth, and the Russians fear him for… what?
- A 1st generation Haitian immigrant struggling to instill his French half into his children. He is a professor at a college and while one of his courses is teaching creole, he despises that part of his heritage and surrounds himself with French joie de vivre. His daughter embraces Frenchness, more so than her American citizenship, but his son prefers to hang out with creole-speaking hoodlums.
And this is just a dusting. Tom Wolfe manages to explain these varying cultures, which indeed do live side-by-side in Miami (and in many American cities), and yet he does it through the characters themselves and their stories. It’s really quite amazing how he has managed to cram so many different cultural outlooks into one plot and yet no one will be confused as to why anyone is behaving in such different ways.
Most importantly, Back to Blood illustrates the division that is caused by some of these diverse groups. Bear in mind that Tom Wolfe is not trying to say that everyone should absolutely integrate, assume homogeneity, and refuse to be different; his purpose seems to be slightly different.
In America of yesteryear, there were differences, but there were also unifying segments in nearly every culture. Whereas blacks were segregated in parts of America, they sought integration, not segregation on their terms. Immigrants came to America to be American, and that still goes on. America remains the most diverse nation in the history of the world, and yet the tribalism that destroys coexistence in so many places seems ever on our horizon.
That is what Tom Wolfe is writing about, here.
A phrase pops into his head from out of nowhere. “Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.’ But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds—Back to blood!” All people, everywhere, you have no choice but—Back to blood!
Back to Blood also exposes deep flaws in modern media, art, sexuality, poverty, crime, and a host of other areas. And perhaps the most important point about this book is that it is not a political book. Some of us political junkies talk about how culture is in trouble in this nation and yet so many seek to repair those problems through social policy. Quite frankly, by the time policy is enacted, any social change you wish to implement has already been passed through the culture, for the most part anyhow. Why? Because it usually takes a strong popular support behind a policy to push it through. This is even true of the civil rights acts of the 60s, contrary to popular belief.
Back to Blood mulls over these problems where the rubber meets the road. There is almost no politics in it at all, save for the lines between the police chief and the mayor. That is very important. Some may say that culture is a reflection of institutions, and certainly there is a reinforcing effect there, but even more so institutions are shaped by culture and we must keep that in mind.
Now, if there is one caveat to be offered in regards to Back to Blood, it is that there are several scenes depicting very plain and graphic sexual perversion. I’m confident that Tom Wolfe could have written a book ignoring this strand of society, and yet it would be dishonest in some way. The moment you have destroyed the sacred, then the most important goal becomes the sensation, the feeling. Thus the height of existential experience is sexual climax, and all other things are either unimportant or arranged around that moment. From Nietzsche inevitably came Freud… Among the problems in our society, this one is of a scale that cannot be ignored. However, if you cannot handle lengthy and graphic discussion of this cancer, steer clear of this book.
Oh, and Lou Diamond Phillips should win many awards for his outstanding performance on the audiobook version.