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Tom Wolfe’s BACK TO BLOOD—A Confederate Looks At Miami’s Cubans
Remember last spring when the Main Stream Media kicked off the Obama re-election drive by inflating a local police blotter item—the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida—into the latest Hunt for the Great White Defendant?
For Obama to win in November, the MSM had to agitate blacks to turn out like in 2008—not like in 2010. And what better way than to drum up a hullabaloo over how the White Man is out gunning down innocent black babies?
Ironically, it quickly turned out that if Barack Obama “had a son,” he might look like George Zimmerman, who is tri-racial on his Peruvian mother’s side. But who had time for accuracy or irony when the President’s re-election required whipping up sufficient racial animus against whites right now? So Zimmerman was morphed into a “white Hispanic.”
We’ve seen the press and prosecutors on the prowl for the Great White Defendant numerous times before, such as the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn mania, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse hoax, and the 1987 Tawana Brawley scam—which was promoted, just like the Trayvon Martin story a quarter of a century later, by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The phrase “hunt for the Great White Defendant” comes from Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , in which Sharpton is lampooned as Rev. Bacon. Indeed, if you want to understand the mechanics of how the Trayvon story was hyped in 2012, the best guide remains Bonfire.
It’s widely believed today that Bonfire was “ripped from the headlines” of the Brawley swindle, Michael Milken’s arrest, the O.J. Simpson case, and other notorious controversies in the manner of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order TV empire.
But in reality, Wolfe’s novel preceded not only Wolf’s L&O, but also almost all the real-life scandals it is now imagined to be based upon.
The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system … at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities, even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view."
The Trayvon Trayvesty should have crowned Bonfire’s reputation as The Great American Novel of the late 20th Century, and driven home that Wolfe has enjoyed the grandest career in American letters since Mark Twain.
Of course, being right doesn’t make you popular. The embarrassing realization that Trayvon Trayvesty had been satirized a quarter of a century before has only turned the MSM even more against Wolfe and his new Miami novel, Back To Blood, a hilarious self-parody of all things Tom Wolfe.
As Wolfe’s fictional Miami Herald editor, comic relief WASP outsider Edward T. Topping IV, muses rhetorically to himself about the briefing corporate headquarters gave him when he was first assigned to South Florida:
“But the purpose of this briefing, they tried to tell Ed in a subtle way, was not to identify all these tensions and abrasions as potential sources of news in Immigration City. Oh, no. The purpose was to encourage Ed and his staff to “make allowances” and stress Diversity, which was good, even rather noble, and not divisiveness, which we could all do without. … [I]f the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened. “
In sum, Topping got the Miami job because he’s cowardly enough to obey the rules of modern journalism.
The new Wolfe book is certainly not a quick read. A few dozen times, I had to put it down to laugh for 30 seconds or more. Readers unfamiliar with Wolfe’s immense career may not get the jokes, however.
The octogenarian writer is gleeful over how Tom-Wolfeish America has turned out to be. For example, Wolfe started depicting male characters using weightlifters’ technical terms for musculature (such as “sternocleidomastoids”) in describing male dominance displays way back in his first published short story, The Commercial, a 1975 tale of a big league baseball player. Yet virtually nobody in America back then knew what he was talking about— because who lifted weights? This was more than a decade before Jose Canseco set out to be the Typhoid Mary of steroids.
Wolfe was over-celebrated as a prose stylist when he suddenly became famous in the mid-1960s. In truth, his prose was always mostly just functional, but studded with striking phrases. As a crafter of sentences, however, he peaked late with the first four-fifths of his 1998 novel A Man in Full. Then his open-heart surgery set off a manic-depressive phase, and he had to slap together a conclusion after 11 years.
At 81, Wolfe’s ability to dream up new phrases is now in decline. But Back To Blood serves as a greatest hits album of 47 years of Wolfe’s inspirations.
Back To Blood is more or less about immigration. As Wolfe explained to The Telegraph:
People would say to me, “What are you working on?” And I would say, “Well, I’m doing something on immigration.” I always got the same reply: “Oh, that’s so interesting.” Never a follow-up question. Their heads would fall forward and they would go to sleep like a horse.” [ Tom Wolfe on his new book, Back to Blood, by Richard Grant, October 24, 2012]
Wolfe started off planning to write about the Vietnamese in Orange County, but switched to the Cubans of Miami, who dominate the city:
'As far as I know, it’s the only city in the world where people from another country, with another language and a totally different culture, have taken over in this way,’ he says. 'Invasions do the same thing.”
Wolfe’s Topping recalls:
And did the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky … for the sole purpose of pushing black people around? …
On the other hand, neither the Vietnamese nor Cubans are representative of the effects of immigration in general: both are anti-Communist refugees from the upper reaches of their home societies. The most informative subject for a novel about the effects of immigration upon America would have been the Mexicans of Los Angeles. But nobody is interested in them.
For example, Wolfe is counting on the sexy spitfire reputation of Miami’s Cuban women (most of whom are “white Hispanics”) to make attractive his quasi-heroine Magdalena, a social climbing nurse. She dumps Wolfe’s hero, a cop named Nestor Camacho, for her boss, a psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction. She then leaves the celebrity doctor for the mysterious Russian Sergei Korolyov, who donates $70 million worth of modern art of uncertain provenance to the Miami art museum.
In contrast, while Los Angeles has plenty of adventuresses, few are Mexican.
Wolfe’s hero Nestor isn’t particularly bright, but he’s brave and loyal, the highest virtues to the author. In a crackhouse raid, a Rodney King-sized black criminal gets his hands around the windpipe of Nestor’s commanding officer, Sergeant Hernandez. The 5’7” bodybuilder leaps into the fray and eventually wrestles the huge black thug into submission. But the last minute of the encounter, with the suspect already down and the two adrenaline-crazed cops cursing him with racial epithets, winds up on YouTube.
Sergeant Hernandez complains to Nestor about the editing of the video:
“They don’t show any a that! They don’t even say like maybe there’s some reason this huge black bull wound up flat on his back like that in the custody of two cops, except that the two cops are Cubans. You’re supposed to figure the only reason is Cubans are cruel bastards who live for pushing los negros around and abusing them and dissing them and …”
And…that’s the only part of Sergeant Hernandez’s lines I can quote because, like a lot of Miami Cubans, he’s wholly lacking in the Racial Sensitivity Gene.
Horrified by the news, Hector surfs to YouTube, only to be “spellbound by the sight of himself on that little screen … Nestor victorious!! … I’m … pumped!”
Let’s take a moment to speculate upon where Wolfe came up with some of his characters’ names:
- The Homeric-sounding name Nestor Camacho is likely drawn from Puerto Rican boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, who was murdered November 24. (Hector and Nestor were heroes on opposite sides in the Trojan War.)
- Nestor’s ex-girlfriend Magdalena is presumably a reference to Proust’s madeleine cookies, the smell of which incites The Remembrance of Things Past. The climactic scene of Wolfe’s novel features the aroma of Cuban pastelitos calling Nestor back to blood.
- Émigré oligarch Sergei Korolyov is probably borrowed from the enigmatic Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev, the shadowy archrival of NASA’s Werner von Braun in Wolfe’s classic The Right Stuff.
- The cameo character Ulrich Strauss, a kindly old gentleman in formal attire who quotes Tom Stoppard on how “Imagination without skill gives us modern art,” is the Wolfe of the present. (By the way, I have this vague hunch that 500 years from now, Tom Wolfe, Tom Stoppard, and Hunter S. Thompson—the Three Toms of 1960s literature—will have blurred into one composite figure in the cultural memory.)
- John Smith, the enterprising 28-year-old Miami Herald reporter that Nestor teams up with is the secondary hero, but remains a minor character: we’re not allowed inside his head. Curiously, he is always referred to, both by other characters and by the narrator, as “John Smith.” Never “John” or “Smith,” just “John Smith.” He dresses more formally than anybody else in Miami, has old-fashioned manners, is a Yale man, and is an unobtrusive but tenacious bulldog at persuading people to spill their inner thoughts to him so he can get the story.
In other words, John Smith is Wolfe’s portrait of himself at that age.
Why is he named John Smith?
Wolfe is a fanatically proud Virginian. In a 1998 interview he reflected upon his boyhood loyalties (which haven’t changed all that much):
"First, I thanked God for having been born in America, which was obviously the greatest country on earth. I was pretty dead right on that. And in what was obviously the greatest state, because more presidents came from Virginia than anywhere else. And from the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest country, because it was the capital of Virginia. Just think of all the people not fortunate enough to be born in Richmond, VA."
The historic John Smith was Pocahontas’s friend, the hero who saved Virginia’s Jamestown colony. In other words, John Smith is the original WASP.
Back To Blood reminds me that the conservative Brain Trust has long assumed that immigrants will become more Republican as they assimilate. Yet, in Miami, where the immigrants started out as fanatical Republicans for foreign policy reasons, the American-born Cubans have been trending Democratic. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Obama carried 60 percent of American-born Cubans (although exit polls of Cubans are notorious for unreliably small sample sizes).[ Cuban-Americans Move Left, November 8, 2012]
Wolfe’s novel sheds some light on this pattern. Although the Miami Cubans in Back To Blood are all white conservatives, they see Anglo whites as The Other: “Americanos.” They use this term even when, as in Nestor’s case, they can’t actually speak much Spanish themselves. Although Nestor can understand his parents when they speak Spanish, he thinks in English because, much as I argued in VDARE.com in 2010:
“There were more Spanish-language television and radio stations than English, but the best shows were in English. The best movies, blogs (and online porn), and video games, the hottest music …”
On the other hand, Wolfe emphasizes, the younger Cubans like Nestor and Magdalena are constantly reminded when they speak to Americanos that their vocabularies in English tend to be smaller, which leaves them embarrassed and unhappy.
Wolfe is the master of portraying embarrassment; in particular, he can intuit what people with 95 IQs find humiliating, a subject most writers are oblivious to.
Interestingly, Back To Blood never turns into a Nestor-John Smith buddy tale, as is traditional for stories about cops and reporters teaming up. For example, when they drive west into Broward County with its ho-hum nationally franchised stores, Nestor begins to feel uncomfortable in the generic exurb. An unusually animated John Smith reflects: “We’ve just entered a strange land … called America! We’re not in Miami anymore. Can’t you feel it?”
“Nestor analyzed this concept for traces of anti-Cuban insult, even though he had experienced the same alien feeling just a moment before … Well, John Smith was an alien himself. He was apparently a living embodiment of a creature everybody had heard of, but nobody ever met in Miami, the WASP … Emotionally, he still resented it, harmless or not. “
As John Smith begins to riff like a proto-Tom Wolfe on the names of the commercial outlets:
“Animated like this, John Smith annoyed him. … John Smith could draw … concepts … out of something as ordinary as this second-rate road … That kind of thinking was a facility Nestor didn’t have. Irony came always at somebody else’s expense … his own, probably …”
Thus, it’s hardly surprising that the usual trajectory for immigrant groups, even anti-black ones like the Cubans, is toward the Democrats—the Party of Resentment.
Topping reflects upon the fictional John Smith, and journalists in general:
If you ask me, newspaper reporters are created at age six when they first go to school. In the schoolyard boys immediately divide into two types. Immediately! There are those who have the will to be daring and dominate, and those who don’t have it. … But there are boys from the weaker side of the divide who grow up with the same dreams as the stronger … The boy standing before me, John Smith, is one of them. They, too, dream of power, money, fame, and beautiful lovers.
Wolfe, who is a lavish spender in the tradition of Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, has seldom made any pretense that he doesn’t want success in its cash forms. (Here’s Wolfe’s tribute to Twain as the rare writer who struck it rich as a “Big Spender from the East.”)
He just wants it on his own terms.
Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is like … a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to … well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down—including people … including the boys who came out on the strong side of the sheerly dividing line.
Hey, that’s what liberals are! Ideology? Economics? Social justice? Those are nothing but their prom outfits. Their politics were set for life in the schoolyard at age six. They were the weak, and forever after they resented the strong. That’s why so many journalists are liberals! The very same schoolyard events that pushed them toward the written word … pushed them toward “liberalism.”
I suspect, however, that Tom Wolfe, much as he resembles John Smith, was never a liberal. I’d like to see him write a memoir. Wolfe’s first three decades—his upbringing in Virginia, his Ph.D. at Yale, and his reporting in Cuba during the Revolution—remain obscure, probably both for personal and political reasons. Wolfe’s friend Ed Hayes, who was the model for Killian, Sherman McCoy’s street smart defense lawyer in Bonfire, has said:
"He's the grandson of a Confederate rifleman and grew up with the sense of the Lost Cause, of glorious doomed charges at Gettysburg, of a sense of personal honor and what constitutes masculinity that has largely been rejected by the urban intellectual elite of the Northeast."
Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative and writes regularly for Takimag. His websitewww.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His book,AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here and here (Kindle)