by Shawn | 1/21/2014
" I have now read all of Tom Wolfe's novels, which lends some perspective on the author and his work. On its merits "Back to Blood" serves as a commentary on culture, race relations, morality and the socio-political ramifications of the shifting demographics within the United States. The purpose in writing the book was to tackle the perplexing and divisive issue of immigration. Wolfe uses the city of Miami as not only the setting for his novel, but his characters are microcosms representing groups across the social stratosphere. The story as a whole provides insights into the author's take on the immigration issue as well as his broader perspectives on contemporary American society. The phrase "back to blood" serves as a rallying cry throughout the work that depicts America not as a traditional melting pot, but rather individuals explicitly identifying themselves through the lens of their sub-nationality, and the novel explores the barriers that impinge upon viewing Miami and America as a cohesive core nation.
"Bonfire of the Vanities" was a glimpse into race relations, the culture of Wall Street greed, and socio-economic conflagration within the 80s, and "Back to Blood" returns to this familiar territory. In fact, it tackles many of the same themes. Wolfe provides a glimpse into race and the criminal justice system, but rather than emphasizing the consequences of racial inequality (Bonfire), Wolfe points to unjust outcomes that emerge from a society embracing hyper-sensitivity when it comes to race relations that in turn ensures unjust outcomes. In fact, at times, it seems as though Wolfe may have found the late Harvard Political Scientist Samuel Huntington's immigration thesis in his final work "Who Are We?" compelling. That would make sense because Wolfe is writing this book primarily at the height of the immigration debate between 2005-10 when Huntington's thesis was prevalent within elite circles. Another theme worth examining is the role of sex, throughout the story, sex correlates with status, power, and is even a tool for manipulation used interchangeably by both the ostensibly powerful (Sergei Korolyov, Dr. Norman Lewis), powerless (Magdalena), and the would be Master of the Universe (Maurice Fleichmann).
Fortunately, Wolfe embraces many of the elements that made his second novel "A Man in Full" arguably his best. A protagonist faces existential upheaval all around, very similar to Voltaire's Dr. Panglossian in Candide, but finds inner strength within to not only withstand the onslaught, but mature as a character, and somehow master their environment within the turmoil of the world. This essentially Wolfean element was severely lacking in "I Am Charlotte Simmons" Wolfe's transgenderfied literary detour. A story that ends with Charlotte looking up in the stands into the disappointed face of the Princeton trained Professor Starling she at one time idolized. Realizing in that moment she had changed and conformed to the mediocrity surrounding her. The reader could only conclude that Charlotte's quintessential American journey that brought her to elite academia was in fact a moral regression, and departure from traditional notions of the American dream.
So, where does that place "Back to Blood" within the Pantheon of the Wolfe universe, and likely his final complete work? Wolfe seems to care a bit more about the intrinsic moral worth of his characters within "Back to Blood". He reserves his greatest disdain for the elite class encumbered by pseudo-intellectuals (Dr. Norman Fisher), modern art enthusiasts, self-loathing Yale snobs/journalists (count Wolfe as one within this troupe), the political class, and solipsists masquerading as oligarchs. Well, again, this sounds much like "Bonfire of the Vanities", however, there is a modest twist. Wolfe finds nobility and true self-worth through the moral compass of his protagonist Nestor Comacho's journey to break away from the restraints and atavism of not only his own class, but the corruption surrounding him. He finds within himself a moral code based on traditional American values to define his own path towards maturity hence character development. In fact, the code is defined by Camacho by a TV program that he once saw on TV based on astronauts, much like "The Right Stuff", nevertheless, Wolfe would find good company with a fellow American literary elite from humble beginnings, T.S. Elliot in his memorable passage from the Wasteland, "We shall not cease from our exploration, but when our exploration ends, we shall return to the beginning, and know the place for the first time." So what does this mean for America's future, BACK TO BLOOD? Maybe. "