Back to Blood — Tom Wolfe

The real problem with Back to Blood is that you’ve already read it, most notably in The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—and if you haven’t read those, you should start with them. Back to Blood has the same assortment of obsessions and interests: there is the child with an unusual name and an elite pedigree: “Last week he totally forgot to call the dean, the one with the rehabilitated harelip, at their son Fiver’s boarding school, Hotchkiss [. . .]” But does anyone still care about elite boarding schools? Does anyone still care about the Miami Herald other than the people who work there? The father of Fiver is the editor, and he thinks it is “one of the half-dozen-or-so most important newspapers in the United States” in an era when the era of newspapers has passed.

The Miami nightclub is named “Balzac’s,” after another Wolfe preoccupations. There is a prurient mention of girls who “were wearing denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris and the pants legs cut off up to. . . here . . .” Has anyone in the U.S. ever used the term mons veneris, outside of Tom Wolfe and medical schools? I think it appeared in I am Charlotte Simmons a couple of times too, and there it was even more improbable. And the word loins! In this case, “juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms.” I’ve heard loins described as loins before, but only by Tom Wolfe and the writers of the Bible. Someone born more recently than 1931 would use “pussy” if they wanted to be crude, “va jay jay” if they wanted to be hipster, or “vagina” if they wanted clinical directness. But not loins. No one but Tom Wolfe would use loins, and use it again and again.

Sometimes writers working out variations on ideas that iterate subtly book by book can work—Elmore Leonard is a good example. Others just feel like they’re repeating themselves. When I am Charlotte Simmons came out, I was in college and skipped class to read it, only to feel an increasing sense of disappointment with the wrongness of many scenes—like Charlotte feeling nervous about the cost of long distance calls. That was an anachronism. Most college students had free long distance by 2004. I would’ve let anyone who asked use my phone to call home. Or, for another example of reportorial wrongness, Charlotte gets a salvaged, pieced-together computer, like a salvaged car. By 2004, however, older but working computers were $25 on Craigslist, or outright given away by schools. These two examples are salient, but there were others, just as I am Charlotte Simmons repeated words, phrases, and ideas from Wolfe’s earlier books. It, and Back to Blood, repeatedly describe moments of cowardly prurience, with men likes wolves and women who didn’t want it or didn’t want to want it and submitted to it only reluctantly, like a female character from the 19th century and not at all like many of the contemporary women I know.

The period details in Back to Blood are wrong. Today, anyone cool would be driving a Tesla Roadster, or Fisker Karma, not a Ferrari 403; Ferraris might’ve been cool twenty years ago, but technology and culture have moved on. Then there’s the simply and wildly improbable: a French professor named Lantier thinks of his daughter that she wasn’t ready for “snobbery” because “She was at the age, twenty-one, when a girl’s heart is filled to the brim with charity and love for the little people.” Someone exposed to live students every semester is unlikely to think of their hearts as “filled to the brim with charity and love” for much of anything, except perhaps alcohol, condoms, iPhones, verbing nouns, and obsessive Facebooking. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but familiarity is a great slayer of illusions like Lantier’s belief about the hearts of most 21-year-old girls.

Back to Blood isn’t a bad book, but it has the same but lesser strengths of the earlier novels, with the same but exaggerated weaknesses of them. We’re told, not shown, that “Mac was an exemplar of the genus WASP in a moral and cultural sense,” without knowing why, if at all, that’s important. We’re told a lot of things, most of them not especially new if we’re familiar with the Wolfe oeuvre.

There are clever moments, as when Magdalena, in a fight with her Spanish-speaking mother (or, in Wolfe-land, Mother), resorts “to the E-bomb: English.” It’s a moment of geriatric cruelty, since “Her mother had no idea what colloquially meant. Magdalena didn’t, either, until not all that many nights ago when Norman used it and explained it to her. Her mother might know hang and possibly even slang, but the hang of slang no doubt baffled her, and the expression clueless was guaranteed to make her look the way she did right now, which is to say, clueless.” It’s clever, and the kind of cleverness that makes the scene fresh and unusual. It’s also the kind of cleverness missing in repeated references to the mons verneris, or to loins, or to high-end private schools.

Wolfe also gets and has gotten for decades the weirdness and power of modern media; its spotlight is restless yet powerful, and it plays a tremendous role in Bonfire. In Back to Blood, Nestor Camacho, a Miami cop, rescues a refugee from the mast of a ship and is recorded doing it; consequently, he becomes momentarily famous, such that: “Even now, at the midnight hour, the sun shone ’round about him.” The analogizing of fame to light seems obvious, even necessary, and although I don’t want to probe its deeper properties here I like how Wolfe avoids the spotlight metaphor, much as I didn’t a few sentences ago. Wolfe uses metaphor in an almost 19th Century fashion, usually effectively.

He gets the way civic booster types think of the arts not as a thing in and of themselves, but as a checkbox; an editor at the Miami Herald thinks that “Urban planners all over the country were abuzz with this fuzzy idea that that every ‘world-class’ city—world class was another au courant term—must have a world class cultural destination. Cultural referred to the arts. . . in the form of a world-class art museum” {Wolfe “Blood”@111}. He’s right, of course, but right in a generic way, like people are right about love being like a rose. If you’ve read anything about urban planning, or cities (and I have), you won’t be surprised at the editor’s knowledge, which he probably picked up in the same places I did, and which says very little about him as a character, exception that he, like so many Wolfe characters, is an information and status receptacle more than he is a person with his own needs and desires.

The complaint expressed throughout this post is similar to but a bit different than James Woods’, which concerns how Wolfe’s characters tend to speak in similar or identical registers, despite coming from wildly different backgrounds. That isn’t necessarily a weakness, but the verisimilitude of the characters must be maintained in novels that portray such startlingly different people in a similar register; that’s what Bonfire of the Vanities does and what Back to Blood doesn’t, quite. The earlier novel also doesn’t feel reported even if it was reported; the latter does, in the same way I am Charlotte Simmons misses the college milieu in a thousand subtle ways. If you swing, it doesn’t matter whether you miss the ball by a millimeter or a meter. The scrim of realism is pierced and the novel doesn’t quite work.

Wood also says that “Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status.” But this isn’t quite true: Wolfe is interested in ordinary life when it’s touched by big events, or ordinary life when its inhabitants have a powerful yearning for something other than ordinary life. That yearning, that drive, can be fascinating. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with writing about extraordinary life, which can be as fascinating, “complex, contradictory, prismatic.” Wood obviously isn’t making this argument, and I doubt he would make it in the kind of caricature I’m making it here, but it’s easy to draw this kind of false lesson from the Back to Blood review. Almost every Wood review is a momentary master class in the novel as a genre, which is why so many writers and would-be writers attend so carefully to them, and why it’s worth appending this brief commentary to a review that in some ways is more useful and interesting than the impressively hyped novel being discussed.

Back to Blood is drawing on capital built up from Wolfe’s earlier novels, and overall it leaves a sense of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If another Wolfe novel appears, I don’t think I’m likely to be fooled again. There are better novels about the state of America—Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one—even if they don’t announce themselves as tomes about the state of America. Given how the voices of Back to Blood don’t quite work and the book-report function doesn’t quite work, there are probably better uses of one’s reading time.

The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood — Julie Salamon

By most accounts, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrible movie, and a not inconsiderable number of people think the same of the book. Consequently, reading Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood might seem like an exercise in shallow masochism, but the book isn’t and tracks both the making of movies and the formation of and interaction among small, hierarchical groups charged with an overarching goal containing innumerable amorphous steps that must be defined before they can even be executed. I wish I could phrase the preceding sentence in something like English instead of consultant-speak, but it nonetheless expresses a true idea about The Devil’s Candy, which is also the story of a cultural industry most people don’t understand, or understand poorly, and yet has an outsized impact on how people think and feel. Running through it like the Mississippi through the United States is money:

During [de Palma's] twenty-five years in the business, he’d seen a lot of astute, intelligent boys like Schwab [the second-unit director] come and go. They knew everything there was to know about film but were too proud to sell themselves. So many of them never got it, that in the movie industry art was a product and the only way to succeed way to figure out how to move the merchandise.

The same sentiment is voiced again:

[Orson Welles'] films didn’t make money; he hadn’t been able to get a picture financed in town since he’d made “Touch of Evil” in 1957 [... at an American Film Institute (AFI) banquet,] Welles gave a thank-you speech that ended with a pitch for money.

Those who manage money well succeed, and those who don’t are thrown overboard; money is behind numerous decisions for good or ill, and the knowledge that tickets must sell inform, for example, racial issues in casting and the script. Decisions about who to cast hold the The Bonfire of the Vanities back as executives and others attempt to simultaneously pander and avoid controversy, entirely missing a central point of Wolf’s book—that the media conflagration around race is what feeds the bonfires of racial tension as well as the self-immolating media itself. Were The Bonfire of the Vanities book not set among high-financiers, The Devil’s Candy demonstrates that it could be set among Hollywood moguls, perhaps with scenes like the one depicted at the beginning of Chapter 6. It offers a heavily ironic tone that I won’t give away, but such metaphoric scenes appear throughout, showing the principals in the movie apparently unaware or unselfconscious of the art they try to strip mine, no matter how much they say they care about the environment. And the more they try, the worse it gets. As Salamon describes de Palma thinking, “Racial Balance. Racial balance! What was he, the ACLU?”

That’s not to say The Devil’s Candy is an angry, anti-political correctness screed: it isn’t, and its purpose is to reveal how decisions that seem laughably bad in retrospect can seem reasonable at the outset. Though I’m tempted to analogize to Iraq, I won’t save through paralipsis. The Devil’s Candy also shows the inherent tension between art and commerce, with movies being pulled toward the latter, which also means they’re more likely to try and blunt rough edges or pull their punches in hopes of winning the bet. Of one change from book to movie, Tom Wolfe observes:

You know, there is an etiquette, particularly on television—and in the movies too, I guess—which say it’s okay to raise the question of racial hostility only if somewhere toward the close of the action you produce an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who creates a higher synthesis and teaches everyone the error of their ways. As the drama ends, everyone heads off into a warmer sunset.

[...]

I was criticized for not doing that. But life is not like that. To me reality is extremely important in fiction as well as in nonfiction. I don’t think you can understand the human heart if you move from reality.

Incidentally, this is the same problem a self-indulgent movie like Crash has, and a property of the healing character like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. One very impressive, unusual aspect of the TV show Friday Night Lights is its ability to avoid the sermonizing Wolfe condemns; I was skeptical of the show, as I am of any TV show, and only picked up the DVDs after seeing it recommended by The New Yorker and then James Fallows. The publication and man, respectively, are not known for pulling their artistic punches the way Hollywood does. Read the articles at both links, which better describe how Friday Night Lights is the rare example of art transcending its medium—which The Bonfire of the Vanities movie apparently did not. Even the example above, which involved the casting of Morgan Freeman in lieu of a judge of Jewish descent, as in Wolfe’s book, brought other problems; de Palma thinks Morgan is unprepared thanks to stardom:

There was something about the money and the fame and the adulation that made them [stars] stop doing the boring work they did automatically when they were struggling. Everyone tells them they’re great, and they start to believe it.

It’s a system de Palma contributes to, and the sense of this movie being a manifestation of systems and incentives grows as The Devil’s Candy progresses. Notice that de Palma blames “money,” although it’s money that drives movies. And it’s a system that rewards those who can operate from within, although at some personal cost:

De Palma decided he had to try, and he approached the project [of winning back studio exec girlfriend Kathy Lingg]—his deliberate strategizing gave the courtship the feel of a project as much as a romance—with the force and logic he would apply to a movie he wanted to get going.

I’m not female, but if I were, I don’t think I’d want to be a de Palma project, especially considering how many of them end up as bloodbaths.

The making of The Bonfire of the Vanities says more about America and life than the movie itself. For example, Salamon writes:

The social stratification was the only certainty on a film set. The players were always different, but the status was constant. And almost everyone was angling for better status. The camera operator wanted to be cinematographer; the cinematographer wanted to direct. The secretaries wanted to be associate producers; the p.a.’s, the production assistants, wanted to be anything that wasn’t the lowest rung on the latter. The stand-ins wanted to act. Everyone was working on a script.

This tendency was apparently exacerbated by the book and the expectations surrounding it, as “the idea took hold that this particular movie could be the definitive vehicle of dreams, big enough and flashy enough to carry along a great many people—the stretch limo of hope and ambition.” It wasn’t, and the fault is better placed on those towards the top than those towards the bottom. Status is hard-gained and easily lost, and blame is also easy; of a test audience, de Palma thinks, “They didn’t have a clue.” Maybe not, but if you’re in mainstream cinema, you better be ready to sell—as he’d apparently forgotten when he thought he was making art. “Money didn’t seem to mean anything, and yet it meant everything,” means that it means everything.

The Devil’s Candy implies that money corrupts to some extent, but that everyone involved, including watchers, is complicit. Look at what the book calls “the emergence of infotainment as a regular feature on local news shows[, which] resulted in a complex symbiosis between the studios and the journalists who followed the film industry for television.” But if those journalists have become derelict in their duty as independent voices, it’s only because we, the people, keep watching them despite their questionable province, like eating foul sausages prior to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At one point, someone

designed his own diorama showing hyenas disemboweling a gazelle. He loved the juxtaposition of this image against the society crowd. “When you think about animals, and these people, you realize that’s what they are,” he said. “Beautifully dressed animals.”

Is he talking about the society Wolfe depicted in his novel, or could he also be talking about Hollywood, media celebrities, readers, and all of us? Such is the pleasure of The Devil’s Candy that it could be any or all of them.

The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood — Julie Salamon

By most accounts, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrible movie, and a not inconsiderable number of people think the same of the book. Consequently, reading Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood might seem like an exercise in shallow masochism, but the book isn’t and tracks both the making of movies and the formation of and interaction among small, hierarchical groups charged with an overarching goal containing innumerable amorphous steps that must be defined before they can even be executed. I wish I could phrase the preceding sentence in something like English instead of consultant-speak, but it nonetheless expresses a true idea about The Devil’s Candy, which is also the story of a cultural industry most people don’t understand, or understand poorly, and yet has an outsized impact on how people think and feel. Running through it like the Mississippi through the United States is money:

During [de Palma's] twenty-five years in the business, he’d seen a lot of astute, intelligent boys like Schwab [the second-unit director] come and go. They knew everything there was to know about film but were too proud to sell themselves. So many of them never got it, that in the movie industry art was a product and the only way to succeed way to figure out how to move the merchandise.

The same sentiment is voiced again:

[Orson Welles'] films didn’t make money; he hadn’t been able to get a picture financed in town since he’d made “Touch of Evil” in 1957 [... at an American Film Institute (AFI) banquet,] Welles gave a thank-you speech that ended with a pitch for money.

Those who manage money well succeed, and those who don’t are thrown overboard; money is behind numerous decisions for good or ill, and the knowledge that tickets must sell inform, for example, racial issues in casting and the script. Decisions about who to cast hold the The Bonfire of the Vanities back as executives and others attempt to simultaneously pander and avoid controversy, entirely missing a central point of Wolf’s book—that the media conflagration around race is what feeds the bonfires of racial tension as well as the self-immolating media itself. Were The Bonfire of the Vanities book not set among high-financiers, The Devil’s Candy demonstrates that it could be set among Hollywood moguls, perhaps with scenes like the one depicted at the beginning of Chapter 6. It offers a heavily ironic tone that I won’t give away, but such metaphoric scenes appear throughout, showing the principals in the movie apparently unaware or unselfconscious of the art they try to strip mine, no matter how much they say they care about the environment. And the more they try, the worse it gets. As Salamon describes de Palma thinking, “Racial Balance. Racial balance! What was he, the ACLU?”

That’s not to say The Devil’s Candy is an angry, anti-political correctness screed: it isn’t, and its purpose is to reveal how decisions that seem laughably bad in retrospect can seem reasonable at the outset. Though I’m tempted to analogize to Iraq, I won’t save through paralipsis. The Devil’s Candy also shows the inherent tension between art and commerce, with movies being pulled toward the latter, which also means they’re more likely to try and blunt rough edges or pull their punches in hopes of winning the bet. Of one change from book to movie, Tom Wolfe observes:

You know, there is an etiquette, particularly on television—and in the movies too, I guess—which say it’s okay to raise the question of racial hostility only if somewhere toward the close of the action you produce an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who creates a higher synthesis and teaches everyone the error of their ways. As the drama ends, everyone heads off into a warmer sunset.

[...]

I was criticized for not doing that. But life is not like that. To me reality is extremely important in fiction as well as in nonfiction. I don’t think you can understand the human heart if you move from reality.

Incidentally, this is the same problem a self-indulgent movie like Crash has, and a property of the healing character like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan. One very impressive, unusual aspect of the TV show Friday Night Lights is its ability to avoid the sermonizing Wolfe condemns; I was skeptical of the show, as I am of any TV show, and only picked up the DVDs after seeing it recommended by The New Yorker and then James Fallows. The publication and man, respectively, are not known for pulling their artistic punches the way Hollywood does. Read the articles at both links, which better describe how Friday Night Lights is the rare example of art transcending its medium—which The Bonfire of the Vanities movie apparently did not. Even the example above, which involved the casting of Morgan Freeman in lieu of a judge of Jewish descent, as in Wolfe’s book, brought other problems; de Palma thinks Morgan is unprepared thanks to stardom:

There was something about the money and the fame and the adulation that made them [stars] stop doing the boring work they did automatically when they were struggling. Everyone tells them they’re great, and they start to believe it.

It’s a system de Palma contributes to, and the sense of this movie being a manifestation of systems and incentives grows as The Devil’s Candy progresses. Notice that de Palma blames “money,” although it’s money that drives movies. And it’s a system that rewards those who can operate from within, although at some personal cost:

De Palma decided he had to try, and he approached the project [of winning back studio exec girlfriend Kathy Lingg]—his deliberate strategizing gave the courtship the feel of a project as much as a romance—with the force and logic he would apply to a movie he wanted to get going.

I’m not female, but if I were, I don’t think I’d want to be a de Palma project, especially considering how many of them end up as bloodbaths.

The making of The Bonfire of the Vanities says more about America and life than the movie itself. For example, Salamon writes:

The social stratification was the only certainty on a film set. The players were always different, but the status was constant. And almost everyone was angling for better status. The camera operator wanted to be cinematographer; the cinematographer wanted to direct. The secretaries wanted to be associate producers; the p.a.’s, the production assistants, wanted to be anything that wasn’t the lowest rung on the latter. The stand-ins wanted to act. Everyone was working on a script.

This tendency was apparently exacerbated by the book and the expectations surrounding it, as “the idea took hold that this particular movie could be the definitive vehicle of dreams, big enough and flashy enough to carry along a great many people—the stretch limo of hope and ambition.” It wasn’t, and the fault is better placed on those towards the top than those towards the bottom. Status is hard-gained and easily lost, and blame is also easy; of a test audience, de Palma thinks, “They didn’t have a clue.” Maybe not, but if you’re in mainstream cinema, you better be ready to sell—as he’d apparently forgotten when he thought he was making art. “Money didn’t seem to mean anything, and yet it meant everything,” means that it means everything.

The Devil’s Candy implies that money corrupts to some extent, but that everyone involved, including watchers, is complicit. Look at what the book calls “the emergence of infotainment as a regular feature on local news shows[, which] resulted in a complex symbiosis between the studios and the journalists who followed the film industry for television.” But if those journalists have become derelict in their duty as independent voices, it’s only because we, the people, keep watching them despite their questionable province, like eating foul sausages prior to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At one point, someone

designed his own diorama showing hyenas disemboweling a gazelle. He loved the juxtaposition of this image against the society crowd. “When you think about animals, and these people, you realize that’s what they are,” he said. “Beautifully dressed animals.”

Is he talking about the society Wolfe depicted in his novel, or could he also be talking about Hollywood, media celebrities, readers, and all of us? Such is the pleasure of The Devil’s Candy that it could be any or all of them.

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