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.


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. To highlight the similarities between Bonfire and Blood the following precis, which can be applied to either novel, is offered:

The plot is set in motion when the white 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 an ideological alignment.

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)

The Nestor she is responding to is one who 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, who are characterized by a reflexive liberal outrage. The very strength of the public feeling toward Nestor’s actions allow him and Wolfe to avoid analyzing those actions in depth. The reflexiveness and hysteria of the public position makes opposition to it seem brave, rational and manly, and the troubling complexities of Nestor’s actions as a guardian of the peace giving way to violence disappear.

Meanwhile, and equally disturbingly, 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 and forgotten about halfway through the book. Manhood is not about such relations in Wolfe’s world. 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 generation 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? And how does it use of the baying liberal mob as fuel for conservative feeling resonate with current trends?