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Tom Wolfe paints Miami red.
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IN THE MANNERS NOVEL TRADITION, and in many ways harkening back to Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, Back to Blood is rich in secondary characters who personify the pretensions, vices, and excesses of Wolfe’s Miami—a layer of people with “pride in status but no pride in function,” as Lionel Trilling, defining snobbery, once put it. Wolfe’s “culture strivers,” with no real-world role to play, are superficial and unpleasant and often repulsive people sitting atop a sharply shifting social structure, with no sense of the tectonic changes grinding just beneath them.
Among the most repulsive: Maurice Fleischmann, a billionaire plagued with clusters of herpes sores and obsessed with sex, who is encouraged as part of his treatment to watch pornography and attend showings and auctions of pornographic art by Dr. Norman Lewis, a psychiatrist with an unnerving laugh (irritating even on paper) who describes his work this way: “I have the hopeless obligation to tell people there’s no such thing as addiction, medically. They don’t want to believe that! They’d much rather believeaahhhHAHAHA Hock hock hock hock—believe they’re sick—kahHAHock hock hock hock!”
But they are sick, of course, and as his nurse Magdalena Otero comes to realize, there’s no advantage in trying to cure them. As Dr. Lewis takes her with him, always in the company of the repulsive Fleischman, to pornographic shows, she comes to realize that Lewis is actually keeping his richest patient in a permanent state of arousal, in order to gain entrée into the world of big money and influence, where he thinks he belongs, and where he can harvest new patients.
In Back to Blood, connoisseurs of pornography mingle with connoisseurs of forged modern art, their pretensions and perversions feeding bottom-dwellers like Dr. Lewis and art forgers, with pornography arousing counterfeit emotions, onanistic pleasure without purpose or ultimate satisfaction, and with the modern art coveted by Wolfe’s strivers devoid of any aesthetic substance or artistic integrity—or for that matter, any real skill—and thus easily forged.
Magdalena, who at the beginning of the novel had been Nestor Comacho’s love interest, is an unusually attractive and perceptive but naïve girl who tends to live in a world of romantic fantasy. At times, she serves as a unifying strand, threading her way through the plot and subplots. And when she’s not thinking self-consciously about the impression she’s making, she can function as a silent chorus, representing simple common sense as she thinks about such matters as pornography or modern art.
Here she is, standing before a painting, seeing “two half-round shapes, one a simple black and the other one a simple white, painted on a beigey-gray background. The two shapes were separated from each other and cocked at cockeyed angles….You’d have to be a cretin to stand here actually studying this mierda….Not even the old fools who pay millions for this idiotic nonsense….are so retarded they actually look at it.”
She finally allows herself to bring the same sort of perceptiveness to bear on her relationship with Dr. Lewis, who then, along with his awful laugh, drops from our sight and hearing. But her romantic side reasserts itself, and she’s swept off her feet by Sergei Korolyov, the reigning Russian oligarch who had given millions of dollars’ worth of paintings to the Miami Art Museum. Korolyov drives her off to his penthouse, where he has his way with her, and then on the morning after gets word that his scam has been blown, and reads the account in the Herald given by the drunken forger, Igor Drukovich. (Drukovich makes fun of the Russian modernists—Malevich, Goncharova, and Kandinsky. “Does Drukovich think he could do what they’ve done? ‘Anybody could!’ he says. ‘My nephew who has a paint box and a brush could do it.”)
Korolyov makes arrangements for a getaway flight, has Drukovich disposed of (he’s found dead by Comacho at the bottom of a flight of stairs with his neck broken), and leaves Magdalena naked in his bed and Miami with the new Sergei Korolyov Museum of Art and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of forged paintings.
MAGDELENA, NOW SADDER and somewhat wiser, tries to reunite with Nestor Comacho. But in another subplot, there’s a lovely almost-fair maiden who takes great pride in her pigmentation, Ghislaine, the ladylike, light-skinned daughter of a pretentious Haitian professor of French. She’s rescued by Comacho, who apparently wins her heart, giving readers a happy ending (if Comacho can win over the snobbish father) and providing Miami the promise of further mingling of the bloods.
Smith and Comacho, the book’s real heroes, would seem to have little in common. To Comacho, Smith is “a living embodiment of a creature everybody had heard of but nobody ever met in Miami, the WASP, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant….a classic Americano, tall, thin, pale, wearing a navy blazer, a white polo shirt, khaki pants with freshly pressed creases down the front….very proper looking….soft spoken to the point of shy.”
But although totally different externally, they both personify a distinct integrity, as does the black chief of police, the third of Wolfe’s admirable characters. All three take great pride in their work (Smith, who as a serious reporter allows nothing to get in his way, might well be modeled on the author), and each risks his career to do the right thing, and do it in the right way.
In these central characters, Tom Wolfe again gives us men in full, who in an age of extraordinary uncertainty, embody the old verities—or perhaps, more accurately, the right stuff. And no matter how our society changes, that remains the same.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online