Interesting review of “Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe.
Originally posted on The Story's Story:
The real problem with Back to Blood is that you’ve already read it, most notably in The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—and if you haven’t read those, you should start with them. Back to Blood has the same assortment of obsessions and interests: there is the child with an unusual name and an elite pedigree: “Last week he totally forgot to call the dean, the one with the rehabilitated harelip, at their son Fiver’s boarding school, Hotchkiss [. . .]” But does anyone still care about elite boarding schools? Does anyone still care about the Miami Herald other than the people who work there? The father of Fiver is the editor, and he thinks it is “one of the half-dozen-or-so most important newspapers in the United States” in an era when the era of newspapers has passed.
The Miami nightclub is named “Balzac’s,” after another Wolfe preoccupations. There is a prurient mention of girls who “were wearing denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris and the pants legs cut off up to. . . here . . .” Has anyone in the U.S. ever used the term mons veneris, outside of Tom Wolfe and medical schools? I think it appeared in I am Charlotte Simmons a couple of times too, and there it was even more improbable. And the word loins! In this case, “juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms.” I’ve heard loins described as loins before, but only by Tom Wolfe and the writers of the Bible. Someone born more recently than 1931 would use “pussy” if they wanted to be crude, “va jay jay” if they wanted to be hipster, or “vagina” if they wanted clinical directness. But not loins. No one but Tom Wolfe would use loins, and use it again and again.
Sometimes writers working out variations on ideas that iterate subtly book by book can work—Elmore Leonard is a good example. Others just feel like they’re repeating themselves. When I am Charlotte Simmons came out, I was in college and skipped class to read it, only to feel an increasing sense of disappointment with the wrongness of many scenes—like Charlotte feeling nervous about the cost of long distance calls. That was an anachronism. Most college students had free long distance by 2004. I would’ve let anyone who asked use my phone to call home. Or, for another example of reportorial wrongness, Charlotte gets a salvaged, pieced-together computer, like a salvaged car. By 2004, however, older but working computers were $25 on Craigslist, or outright given away by schools. These two examples are salient, but there were others, just as I am Charlotte Simmons repeated words, phrases, and ideas from Wolfe’s earlier books. It, and Back to Blood, repeatedly describe moments of cowardly prurience, with men likes wolves and women who didn’t want it or didn’t want to want it and submitted to it only reluctantly, like a female character from the 19th century and not at all like many of the contemporary women I know.