The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: March, 2018

Becoming a Man in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood (2012)

The tradition of the Condition-of-England novels of the mid-19th century is still with us; novels still offer “analysis and synthesis of social reality”. One of the contemporary novelists who most clearly invites comparison with the C-of-E genre is the American Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s novels are huge sprawling affairs with large casts spanning social classes but linked by chance, like Dickens’ Bleak House moved across the Atlantic.

Wolfe published Back to Blood in 2012, and it is still his most recent novel. He is in his mid-80s, so it may be his list. In fact, it is only his fourth novel, as he didn’t start until late middle age, with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Up until then, he had written only non-fiction, journalistic pieces collected in very successful volumes such as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But with Bonfire, Wolfe set the template for his fiction work, and he has reused it in work since then.

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Tom Wolfe in the 1980s, in typically dandyish dress.

Bonfire was a quintessentially New York novel, as tied to place as Bleak House is to London. With Blood, Wolfe set the entire 700 page opus in Miami, having apparently gone down there first to put in the research. Like Bonfire, also, the plot of Blood is essentially set in motion when the male professional protagonist becomes embroiled in a charged encounter with a low-status black male, one which becomes public knowledge and sets loose a storm of public condemnation on the head of said protagonist. Finally – several hundred pages – later the protagonist faces down the baying, bovine public and wins back his honour and his financial and social standing.

In Blood, this protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a cop of Cuban heritage. Camacho first comes to public attention when he arrests a Cuban attempting illegal entry into the US, an arrest carried out in a spectacular fashion. This leads to Camacho being ostracised by the Cuban community, including his own family. Then, shortly afterwards, Camacho arrests a black drug dealer in a violent manner, and a video emerges of Camacho’s partner racially abusing said drug dealer and of Camacho himself calling the guy a “filthy little bitch” (Vintage, 2013, p. 309) and so on. Cue public outrage.

Though the general public denounce Camacho and he is relieved from duty by the Police Department, another reading of the incident is provided:

No indication whatsoever of the life-or-death crisis that precipitated this vile “abuse,” not so much as a hint that this put-upon black man is in fact a powerful 250-pound young crack house thug, nothing to make it at all credible that he might have touched off the whole thing by wrapping his huge hands around the Sergeant’s neck, that he was within one second of murdering him by crushing his windpipe, that his life was saved only by the immediate reaction of Officer Camacho, who threw himself onto the brute’s back and, weighing only 160 pounds, clamped a couple of wrestling holds onto 275 pounds of crack house thug and rolled in the dirt and the dirtballs with him until the brute became utterly depleted in breath, power, willpower, heart, and manhood… and gave up… like a pussy. How could any man pretend not to realize that, faced with death, even a cop experiences an adrenal rush immensely more powerful than all chains of polite conversation and immediately seeks to smother his would-be killer with whatever vile revulsion comes surging up his brain stem from the deepest, darkest, most twisted bowels of hatred? How could any man, even the mildest and most sedentary, fail to understand?! (pp. 416-417)

Who is it who speaks here? It is a characteristic of Wolfe’s fiction, and especially this book, that there is a very blurred line between narratorial comment and the thoughts of the characters. The above is an example. The use of an exclamation mark seems to indicate the emotion that would come with Nestor’s point of view, but some of the language is rather formal and literary, which Nestor is not. There is an intertwining of the narrator’s voice with the character’s, indicating that they are in agreement.

The logic of the plot bears this out also, as Nestor undergoes a Hero’s progress, from equilibrium to crisis and finally back to equilibrium at a higher level and with gained knowledge. This happens during the rushed final chapter, when he returns to active duty, taking up again his badge and his gun, whilst also embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful and well educated young girl – leaving behind his old girlfriend, a Cubana nurse who dumped him but now wants him back. The old girlfriend’s reflections on the “new” Nestor are revealing:

“It was like he was being all manly and taking charge […]. He was kind of… I don’t know…” She laughed, trying to take the edge off the word she was about to use– “hot.” (pp. 695-696)

Nestor has come through the fire of public opprobrium, and now he is back on the beat, and, what’s more, he’s manly and hot. His coming to true manhood is related to his ability to withstand and ignore the opinions of the public, with their reflexive liberal outrage. The very strength of the public feeling on Nestor’s actions allow him and Wolfe to avoid analyzing those actions in depth. The reflexiveness of the public position makes opposition to it seem brave, rational and manly, and the complexities of Nestor’s position as a guardian of the peace giving way to violence disappear.

Meanwhile, and equally troublingly, Nestor coming to manhood also means disowning the community from which he sprung: his girlfriend is gone, and his relations with family and other Cubans are just jettisoned halfway through the book. Manhood is not about such relations, clearly. Manhood is about engaging fully and thoughtlessly with the symbolic authority one has been invested in by the state. Nestor is just a badge, a gun, and a uniform, with a doting young girlfriend on the side. Heroic masculinity is about silence, violence and power. As evidence, there is the otherwise pointless episode where Nestor faces down a “big lug” in a diner:

Nestor was in such a good mood, thanks to Cristy, he would have been glad to laugh at the big lug’s crack—which did have a valid point, after all—and let it pass… except for one word: sniffing. Especially coming from the working-stiff lips of a hulk like this one, it meant sniffing Cristy in a sexual way. Nestor ransacked his brain to find a reason why even that might be okay. He tried and he tried, but it wasn’t okay. It was an insult… an insult he had to stomp to death on the spot. It was disrespectful to Cristy, too. As every cop on patrol knew, you couldn’t wait. You had to shut big mouths now.

He stepped away from the counter and gave the americano a friendly smile, one you could easily interpret as a weak smile, and said, “We’re old friends, Cristy and me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time.” Then he broadened the smile until his upper lip curled up and bared his front teeth… and kept stretching that grin until his long canines—i.e., eyeteeth—made him look like a grinning dog on the verge of ripping open human flesh, as he added, “You got a sniffing problem with that?”

The two men locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity… Triceratops and allosaurus confronted each other on a cliff overlooking the Halusian Gulp… until the big americano looked down at his wristwatch and said, “Yeah, and I gotta be outta here and back on the site in ten minutes. You got a problem with that?”

Nestor nearly burst out laughing. “Not at all!” he said, chuckling. “Not at all!” The contest was over the moment the americano averted his eyes, supposedly to look down at his watch. The rest of it was double-talk… trying to save face. (649)

So in “stomp[ing] to death” the perceived insult, the incipient violence of Nestor’s new manlihood is laid bare. This is one of the many troubling aspects behind Wolfe’s book and the implied ideology behind it.

Wolfe has sympathy mostly with power and money, and interest in how they are gained and wielded. The dialogism that informs a first generatin Condition-of-England novel like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) has here given way to brute force. Because of this, Wolfe needs to be read for the many challenges he presents to the liberal way of thinking. The Wolfean universe is not necessarily one we want to live in, but the questions are: How accurately does it reflect the universe we do live in? How valid is its analysis and synthesis of social reality?

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Damsels in Distress; Stern, Silent Rhodesians; and Imperial Dreamlands: Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

Once again I have been perusing the work of Agatha Christie, this time a relatively little-known, relatively early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The title of the book is a particularly uninteresting one. A man in a brown suit is far from a noteworthy phenomenon, and, prima facie, there is little reason why one would want to read about him. Christie was not a particularly good titler of books: she often used generic titles involving Murder (…in Mesopotamia, …on the Orient Express, …is Easy, etc.) or Death (…on the Nile, …in the Clouds, …Comes as the End, etc.) and also had a fondness for using nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Five Little Pigs; And Then There Were None; etc.). But The Man in the Brown Suit perhaps takes the prize as the most boring title she ever used.

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But Brown Suit is not a boring book. It is interesting in that it is uncharacteristic of Christie. It is less a detective novel than an adventure novel. It is very much in the vein, indeed, of John Buchan’s Greenmantle and such works. A dash of espionage, some foreign travel, embroilment in huge political conspiracies, a daring and reckless central figure. Christie’s protagonist and narrator (of most of the book) is an 18-year-old girl called Anne Beddingfield. Here is a notable point of difference from Buchan. Buchan’s hero in Greenmantle, The 39 Steps and others in the series is Richard Hanny, and he is a bachelor who surrounds himself with loyal and similarly adventurous male friends. Women don’t get a look in. (Note: the romantic interest introduced by Hitchcock in the famous film version of Steps does not exist in the novel.)

In feminizing the genre, Christie introduces a few notes not found in writers like Buchan. One notable motif in Brown Suit is that of the damsel in distress, that age-old and much critiqued trope. Christie is self-consciously working with this trope from the beginning and throughout, as is evidenced by the narrator’s repeated references to “The Perils of Pamela”, obviously a play on the famous silent-era serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which is still today a byword for damsel-in-distress narrative. One could make the case that Christie is satirizing this trope:

Pamela was a magnificent young woman […]. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way […], the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl […]. (11)

Thus Anne recognizes a certain formulaism and unreality about the series, but at an emotional level it retains its impact. This is a central theme of Brown Suit, both interesting and irritating. Christie/Anne is constantly displaying a consciousness of the improbabilities of the plot, but such a plot is still evidently emotionally satisfying for both narrator and author.

Also differing from Buchan is the inclusion of a romantic subplot – indeed it is so central that one might consider it co-plot rather than subplot. Anne’s thirst for Perils-of-Pamela-style adventure is from the beginning indistinguishable from her desire to find romantic love. She has a very specific ideal of romantic love: “stern, silent Rhodesians” (11). This tag recurs several times in Anne’s narrative to describe the man of her dreams. Here enters the complicating factor of imperialism. Rhodesia had recently – just the preceding year, in fact – been annexed by the British, so Anne’s romantic desires are firmly focused on the figure of the imperial conqueror.

So, the excitement of the imperial project is inscribed in Brown Suit. While England is a place of “butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers” (9) and of “drab utility” (11), the imperial battlegrounds of South Africa and Rhodesia are loci of adventure and excitement, of attractively inarticulate men of action and of romantic opportunity. This initial set-up dichotomizing boring, utilitarian England and the exciting, adventuresome realm of foreign affair (imperialism and war) is strongly reminiscent of Buchan (see the opening of The 39 Steps) and of Erskine Childers’ seminal spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903). It is here that Anne can play out the battle within her between the woman of action and the submissive damsel in need of rescue. Even in the closing pages of the book, Anne writes of her lover: “I followed him as meekly as the Barotsi woman I had observed at the falls, only I wasn’t carrying a frying-pan on my head” (189-190). Thus Anne has neither sought nor found emancipation, but she has found a true master, one such as could only exist in the dreamlands of imperialism.

This, then, is a very different Christie. The youth of her heroine gives her much scope to reflect on gender, desire and on the search for fulfilment in life. Poirot might be little more than a brain inside a utilitarian shell of a body, but Anne is a more complete human being in certain respects. Her idealization of the “stern, silent Rhodesian” type may seem immature, and even troubling in the context of the imperial struggles (and indeed the trade union struggles mentioned in the book) of the time, and they demonstrate Christie to have been at a far remove from any insight into the workings of imperialism. In Brown Suit, imperialism is a fantasmic construct. But that is not a reason to avoid the book, for the fantasy of imperialism was as important as the reality. As Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness, the genuine belief in the imperialist mission by those removed from it was central to its perpetuation: “that great and saving illusion“, as Conrad’s Marlow called it. This illusion would appear to be a central dynamic principle behind The Man in the Brown Suit, a work which is in itself energetic and readable, though unlikely to be much remembered were it not for Christie’s more straightforward detective works.

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