Friday, November 16, 2012

White Suit, Keen Eye, and Sharp Quill

In 1968, at the high-tide of the counterculture, I opened The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on a Friday and finished it over the weekend. Most probably (I no longer remember), I ignored assigned school reading on the same weekend. The book details the adventures of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters on their cross-country tour in the psychedelic bus Further. The reviewer for The New York Times, Eliot Fremont Smith, commented at the time, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the essential book.” So it was, and is. Tom Wolfe brought his creative, exuberant, and off-beat style to his reportage, capturing images, dialogue, perspectives, fashions, and tone perfectly. Ever since that weekend, Tom Wolfe steadily has expanded his territory on my bookshelves.

Wolfe’s nonfiction (e.g The Right Stuff) reads very much like fiction; yet, not until he was 54 years old did he write a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Appropriately enough, The Bonfire of the Vanities reads very much like nonfiction. In this dark, cynical, but funny book, Wolfe captured the social milieu of ‘80s New York so well that he uncannily presaged the Bernie Goetz affair in his plot. The book, by the way, should not be judged by the 1990 movie, which was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress, and Worst Screenplay. (For all that, the movie has acquired a cult cachet in recent years.) Wolfe’s next novel A Man in Full dissects the adolescent (or, more properly, primate) social jockeying of players in the debt-driven prosperity of the ‘90s, as they dance on the fence-top between opportunity and disaster, success and jail. I am Charlotte Simmons in 2004 was a spot-on depiction of prevailing values and youth culture on college campuses. In this novel, Wolfe once again was prophetic. At the fictional Dupont University (which bears striking similarities to Duke), a scandal in the novel involving the basketball team presaged the real 2006 Duke lacrosse team scandal.

In 2012 the octogenarian Wolfe shows he is not ready to hang up his keyboard. His latest novel, Back to Blood, is set in Miami, the most ethnically diverse city in an ever more diverse America. The blood of the title refers to bloodline, not blood spatter. (Tom leaves spatter to Jeff Lindsay and Dexter.) An underlying theme: despite (or because of) the intermingling of Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Russians, African-Americans, Anglos, etc., ethnic and racial consciousness infuses everything – often subtly, but sometimes by megaphone – in politics, on the job, and in personal relations. Individuals are rarely just individuals. One character, a newspaper editor on the ever-more-irrelevant Miami Herald, mulls to himself about this: “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 item inside a supercollider known as the universe. But believing in something by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it.” The  plot involves a pornography addiction therapist, a Russian billionaire who might have donated forged paintings to a museum, and a hero Cuban cop who is reviled by his own family because he rescued but then helped arrest a Cuban refugee off-shore (automatic asylum applies only to Cubans who first touch land). The portrait of Miami (and not just Miami) that emerges is detailed and convincing; the image is far from pleasant, but it is entertaining.

Upshot: a thumbs up for Back to Blood. One only can hope that this novel, too, is not prophetic.

Tom Has a Friend on YouTube

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