spinestripphotoI recently read Tom Wolfe’s latest novel: Back to Blood (Cape,2012).

As with the last Tom Wolfe novel I read, Bonfire of the Vanities, I found this one hard to get into, but experience with Bonfires told me it would be worth persevering. Once again I found myself reading about people and places that seemed to bear no relation to my own life – too rich, too urban, too greedy, too selfish, etc, etc. I am a saint and live in a desert.

Of course he won me over eventually: all too human.

The book is drenched in lust and self-doubt, but its handful of major characters is compelling. Something Wolfe himself said during a recent Radio 4 interview, about the characters in his book, and I think, about his writing in general, was ‘look at them!’ It was an exhortation, invoking incredulity, astonishment, amazement. We grossly gaze on at their antics, and also at their thoughts. Those of you who have read my novel, A Penny Spitfire, will know that one of the elements I struggled with was to allow thoughts and speeches to flow in and out of each other without always making it clear where on stopped and the other started. Wolfe has taken the other tack, sharply contrasting the two modes, even inventing a new punctuation mark to help us with this.

The thoughts, when not lustful, are often racist, in that unthinking, taken-for-granted way that bigotry insinuates itself into our everyday lives. Almost always it seems, the characters see each other as representatives of some group or other, and see themselves that way too.

But this very literary book has a thread running through it that grows in importance, to my mind, as the convoluted plot – a disgraced Miami cop and a young reporter tracking down the evidence of a major Arts scam, to the counterpoint of the cop’s ex-girlfriend’s serially disastrous love-life- nears its climax(es). This is an examination of the importance of the possession of language, and by extension of education, in how we perceive the world, and how we are perceived in it through the words we use.

Over and over again Wolfe’s characters react to the words that are spoken to them, in various forms of English, in Spanish, Creole, and Russian. At first this seems to be a feature of Wolfe’s characterisations, but as I read on, I became convinced that it was really the other way around: his characters were really a part of his examination of the role language plays in our lives. Here I am, back again, at that C.S.Lewis idea, that a story is a net to catch something else, and what Wolfe is catching, with his ostensible portrayal of lust, snobbery and power, is much more to do with the importance of words.

Curiously, power and snobbery were major themes in his earlier book too, but here it as if they have been harnessed to a deeper theme, of which I feel there was no real equivalent in ‘Bonfire.’ Some editions of Bonfire of the Vanities carry an essay by Wolfe, on the emergence of the New Journalism, and the superior literary qualities of journalism over fiction at the time of his writing. He touched on this in that Radio 4 interview, it seemed to me, when he remarked that ‘young American novelists had been taught to write like French writers, and had done their best.’ The phrase damning with faint praise comes to mind.

Back to Blood is a self-consciously journalistic novel (as was Bonfires), but its preface carries a list of the names of people who helped this New York based author do his research. It needs no essay in front of it, nor does it have one, but the discussion of modern Art, which takes place among the fictional characters, rings with echoes of discussions that might be had in respect of modern writing too.

Earlier in the novel there has been the description of a night at a strip club cum(no pun intended) brothel. Having performed, the stripper, on all fours, allows her ‘ass crack’ to be stuffed with dollar bills, the ‘green tails’ of the chapter heading. Wolfe’s narrative voice goes into rant mode – capital letters no less – as his exhortation to ‘look at them’ is played out, and when I got to his rant about Art, a few chapters later, I couldn’t help sensing a comparison.

I think this is a clever book, demanding much of the reader, and rewarding it, and definitely one to read again. It’s not just a matter of some of the good guys winning through, but rather of some of the good in the guys winning through. It’s not the imaginary people and events that we should marvel at, but the language in which they solely exist.

One last thing to mention, is a line that might just be what Wolfe’s net was out to catch: a perception, an understanding, a description of what all Art might be out to catch, the nature of the Human Condition: ‘this trough of moral error in which we are fated to live out our lives.’APennySpitfire-frontcover