Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood

I read Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood” a little while back and figured I’d pass along my thoughts for anyone who is interested.  I also commend Peter Berkowitz’s review of the book in Policy Review as one I found insightful.  I will try to avoid any spoilers.

I’ve read a lot of Tom Wolfe and have been a long-time fan.  Funny enough, the first time I ever remember coming across Wolfe was from my first-year Contracts professor, the legendary Bob Scott, who used the metaphor of being “on the bus” repeatedly during our semester of Contracts (referring to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).  Since then I’ve read all of Wolfe’s major works (I think) and a lot of his minor works.  So first, I want to say that I really enjoyed this book. I think I liked it the best since Bonfire of the Vanities, although I did like Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons as well, but those were a bit more mixed in my book.

For those who haven’t read the book, the setting is in modern-day Miami.  The two major characters in the book are a couple of Cuban-American children of immigrants.  The other characters are really sort of supporting characters for those two.  To some extent the standard Wolfe themes of status, etc., are here.  But I saw something distinctive here, and counter-intuitive from what other people took away from the book.

What I took Wolfe to be discussing here was the age-old questions of the assimilation of new immigrants into America and the struggles that they go through as they seek to reconcile their new lives in America with their old lives they leave behind. America is often characterized as a creedal society rather than a tribal society. Which means that you become American by buying into the principles that underlay America. “Becoming American” is a conscious choice, one that an individual makes by volition. It is something you choose, not something you inherit or born into. A corollary to that, Wolfe implies here, is that you take responsibility for your own actions and who you are.

The interesting clash here is between these two worlds–the Cuban immigrant parents and the American-influenced children who break away from these traditional tendrils to forge their own way. In many ways the opening scene reflects this–Nestor in the end adhering to the formal neutrality of the rule of law while being criticized by his community for not ignoring the obligations of the law and instead following tribal instincts.

So the first level of the story is this feature of breaking away from the traditional tribal obligations, which is an age-old American drama. But there is a second, equally interesting level–the fundamental tension between Nestor and Magdalena who embody the two extreme sides of modern America and reflects how this dynamic plays out. Nestor embodies the moral core of America–hard work and the gains of doing the right thing. Magdalena embodies the seduction of consumerist glitz and superficial flashiness often associated with modern consumerism. Both are cut off from their Hialeah roots and are forced to forge their own way in society by following these different paths.

What strikes me as significant is that Wolfe superficially suggests (especially with the title) that the process of immigrant assimilation is different from earlier eras. But digging just slightly deeper, I was left with a distinctly optimistic impression–that the process of assimilation and Americanization is largely the same today with modern immigrants as with the Irish, Poles, and Germans who immigrated a century ago. And that even as they become Americans they contribute to remaking America in their image. The book’s ending, I think, is very important in reinforcing this point.

The other thing that I like about Wolfe is that, in the end, he is a man who believes that despite it all and the seeming chaos of the world there is a moral order to the universe. Readers often get distracted by the superficial immorality of his characters, but in the end it seems that his real lesson is really somewhat Aristotelian–that true happiness and fulfillment comes from moral behavior, even (or especially) when it is hard, and not from  the allure of cheap stardom and a quick buck. Often we learn those lessons the hard way. In the end, those with a moral compass of some sort remain standing.

And I think this is also why what comes through to me is his optimistic vision of America, that as a society rooted in personal responsibility and individual liberty it is a place that tests us, but in the end rewards us for living a life of character and responsibility.