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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Back to Blood

I had occasion to listen to a few audio books recently, so finally got around to Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood, which I've been meaning to read ever since it came out in 2012. It got mediocre reviews at the time. But the cultural establishment -- the MSM -- hates Tom Wolfe for his apostasy: he describes different ethnic groups accurately, an unforgivable sin.

But to ward off the worst of these accusations, Wolfe was careful to include a sympathetic character of every major ethnicity.

The hero is Cuban cop. But virtually all of the other Cubans, for whom ethnic solidarity is everything, are portrayed as having a petit bourgeois mentality, and sound dumb in a peculiarly Hispanic way. Except for the conniving Cuban Mayor of Miami.

The villain of the piece -- but also the coolest character -- is a Russian oligarch. (It's always obvious whom a writer really favors because he gives that character best, most incisive lines.) Another Russian, a forger, is given the task of expressing Wolfe's disdain for modern art, around which the plot revolves.

All of the Russians, sympathetic or not, are completely free of the modern American penchant for euphemism. That insinuating Russian accent is great for....insinuation.

The old Jewish ladies in a retirement home (for "active adults") sound just like old Jewish ladies. They, too, are vehicles through which Wolfe expresses his disgust for the modern art scene. There is a Jewish billionaire porn addict as well. There weren't any particularly sympathetic Jewish characters; perhaps Wolfe felt that his Jewish wife would insulate him from criticism on that score.

There is a dumb brute of a black crack dealer, who is offset by a likable black chief of police who is loyal to the rank and file despite the possible harm to his career. This chief is well aware that he is a token, and also well aware of all the political pressures impinging on everyone else.

A pretentious light-skinned Haitian professor is offset by his daughter, who's genuinely angelic.

It's easy to assume that Wolfe, a WASP himself, likes WASPs, or at least sympathizes with them. But Wolfe reserves his greatest venom in the book for the Anglos. Edward Topping V is a weak but pretentious Yalie who is the editor of the Miami Herald. A social-climbing psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, is loathsome, though he's almost a WASP by default, as his loathsomeness isn't really an outgrowth of his ethnicity.

Wolfe has a great ear for ethnic lingo. (Though he has his characters parsing their own and other's words to an extent real people never do.)

What Wolfe has in common with Elmore Leonard, who's also been called America's greatest novelist, is an ability to describe the kind of confrontation that occurs between two men who won't back down. Leonard specialized in low rent criminals, while Wolfe's specialty is pretentious strivers. But ego knows no class boundaries.

Wolfe also doesn't ignore the importance of physical appearance in the social pecking order.

The biggest problem with with Wolfe, though, is that the only way people differ is in rank and status. There are no gradations in character: everybody has the same (high) level of narcissism and pretension. And there seem to be no sociopaths.

The book goes a little heavy on the sound effects, which get tiresome. And the ending of this book was too abrupt. (I wanted more closure.) But it's still worth reading. No other book illustrates quite so well how little of a melting pot we are, and no one skewers pretension like Wolfe.

I'm usually annoyed when audio books seem to give the reader of the book almost as much "jacket" space (on the back of the CD box) as the author. Reading a book is not the equivalent of writing one. But Lou Diamond Phillips deserves credit. He had the Russian, Cuban, Haitian (French), Jewish, and even WASP accents down perfectly. And he would soften his voice for the female dialogue. (I also find it annoying that so many male actors, in a misguided effort to preserve their sense of manliness, refuse to change their pitch for the female parts.) Thanks to Phillips, the book may be even better listened to than read.


Anonymous said...

In my experience, Cubans are smart.
Puerto Ricans are the stupid group.
Obviously, we are generalizing here.
Armenians are smart, too. The stupidest one I have met was EVEN SO a contractor who could build staircases.
Have you ever met an incompetent Armenian?


John Craig said...

I haven't known any Cubans I can think of, to be honest.....I guess Ted Cruz is half Cuban, and he's undeniably intelligent, if sleazy. And Marco Rubio is 100% Cuban by descent, and if he's not as smart as Cruz, and not smart by Presidential candidate standards, he's still way above average. So, yeah, judging from those two examples, they're smart, but they're hardly a random selection.

Puerto Ricans, I won't argue.

I knew a bunch of Armenians when I was young, and they were definitely smart. And the answer to your question is no. Armenians are basically Jews who aren't Jewish, or at least that's their reputation. In fact I remember reading once that the Jews are basically half Armenian and half Persian by descent, so......

John Craig said...

PS -- I probably shouldn't have described the Cubans as acting dumb in a peculiarly Hispanic way, but as small-minded. That would have been a better description of the way Wolfe portrayed them.