Some books cause a stir beyond the literary world, and Tom Wolfe, who some consider America’s greatest living writer, has again stirred the pot with a new book, Back to Blood (Little, Brown), that Christians should and should not read.
Should, because it shows the depravity of a culture whose leaders, more often than not, have forgotten virtue and lust after sex, power, and status. Wolfe preaches a vivid jeremiad against those whose goal is to get into exclusive clubs, and against the liberal politicians who enable them. Wolfe, 81, has “an old-fogeyish sensibility,” complained the San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer, who scorned Back to Blood as did reviewers in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and just about every other major newspaper.
Should not, because the book is replete with sex and bad language, and has little that’s positive except the desire of Miami policeman Nestor Camacho to do his job and the comeuppance of his former girlfriend Magdalena, who confuses upward mobility with horizontal availability to the rich and famous. Michiko Kakutani, top reviewer of The New York Times, worried that Wolfe “depicts a dog-eat-dog world in which people behave like animals.” Partly true, except that we’re more like sheep.
Wolfe began his magazine-writing career with Esquire, and Esquire reviewer Benjamin Alsup complained that Wolfe, astounded by much of what he saw, wrote that astonishment into his characters: “Their eyes bulge out. Perhaps this is how it goes in Wolfe’s neck of the woods, but in Miami, a place where a naked man recently ate another man’s face, nothing’s shocking. In this town, one is shocked by the strange ways of other people only if one hasn’t been here very long.”
Maybe that’s why so many critics are panning this book: Wolfe still gets shocked, much like most Christians. Reviewers typically wrote that Wolfe was exaggerating, but Miami Herald book editor Connie Ogle, who has a front-row seat at the circus, observed that “Back to Blood is as excessive as the city it celebrates and eviscerates. … It will offend sensibilities all around, but the novel’s pointed observations are dangerously close to reality.”
And that’s what Wolfe has tried to achieve. For decades he has argued that American novelists have sat on the rung of postmodern self-referentiality, and fallen into irrelevance and sterility: He wants novelists to again be journalistic observers like Émile Zola. Wolfe’s street-level observations showed him 40 years ago that marriage vows would become less important, and he now sees nearly total depravity.
Wolfe voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and has said that his literary colleagues reacted as if he were a child molester. Since then Wolfe has sometimes worn an American flag pin with his white suits: He says that’s like “holding up a cross to werewolves.” Wolfe’s books would be better if he did hold up a cross, but his depiction of social elites as molesters is important to remember whenever we envy the fashionable.