Tom Wolfe changed my life. I was 17 when The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test came out. I read it. Then read it again. The year was 1968. It was then, for the first time, I truly realized, that my friends and I were not alone in the world. I mean, I sorta knew it during 1967’s “Summer Of Love” but there was a huge difference between being 16 and 17. At least for me.
Thus started my psychedelic adventures. This, of course, led to Woodstock in ’69 and all the rest. I waved my freak flag high. The novel substantiated all of my counter-cultural leanings and forevermore made a dividing line between what had come before us and what we would make of the world yet to come. It didn’t exactly work out that way but in our togetherness, including strangers who looked liked us, there was strength, unity and purpose. It might have been a mirage but it seemed righteous at the time.
I didn’t know it back then but that book signaled a seismic shift in American literature: the concept of the novel as journalism—or journalism as a novel. Truman Capote had written In Cold Blood in 1966 (took me another 20 years to get around to him) to change the rules completely. Wolfe took what Capote started and ran with it. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicled the adventures of Ken Kesey (1935-2001) and his Merry Pranksters who drove around the country turning on folks in towns far and wide to LSD. Kesey had already written One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, which would be made into my still-favorite movie starring Jack Nicholson in 1975. Little did I know that the bus driver for the Merry Pranksters was Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s main character in On The Road, Dean Moriarty. So it all came full-circle with the realization that one of the country’s most celebrated beats, Cassady, became one legendary bus-driving hippie.
So yeah, Tom Wolfe, with one book, changed my life and set me on a course, helped by my generation’s Beatles/Stones/Dylan Holy Trinity that has yet to abate.
I missed out on the book America loves him most for: The Right Stuff in 1979, never even saw Tom Hanks say, “Houston, we have a problem” in the movie.
But I was right there with him when he changed gears away from the genre he pioneered of “New Journalism” to write a big fat messy-but-brilliant novel The Bonfire Of The Vanities in 1987, which takes place in the New York City world of investment banking. 11 years later in ’98 came A Man In Full against a backdrop of the Atlanta real estate market. In 2004, the best one yet, I Am Charlotte Simmons, about one particularly horny college girl. Loved ‘em all.
Now comes Back To Blood and if it’s not exactly up to previous standards, it’s still Tom Wolfe, 81 years old and writing like a damn teenager, pages filled with the literary equivalent of comic book action balloons of POP!, ZAP! and KABOOM!!! For, you see, Wolfe imbues his plot(s) with visual craziness like his frequent weirdness of six periods (closely spaced) atop six other periods; little dot blocks, as it were, that might seem confusing at first but you get used to it. That and his constant sound effects the reader is intended to hear while reading. Take the scene in a topless bar where the minute you walk in, the bass thrum is so loud, it obliterates your every thought. “The moment the leader and his orangeade-faced follower entered, BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung BEAT-unngh thung began BEATING and thunging into their central nervous system.” Then there’s the laugh of the celebrity-obsessed porn doctor who takes advantage of a hopefully addicted millionaire: HahhhHHHockhockhock hock hock!” That laugh consistently mars his every speech. Still, you get used to such sound effects after a while as your eye tends to glom over such eccentricities.
Black In Blood concerns itself with the city of Miami and the bad blood between blacks and Cubans as manifested by the relationship between the chief of police and the mayor. Nestor Camacho is a Cuban cop who finds himself at odds with his community and family when he climbs up the 70-foot mast of a schooner to rescue a mysterious man seeking asylum from the Castro regime. The man is promptly arrested. Nestor is promptly ostracized—even after his act of bravery. Nestor gets in further trouble while dispatching a whale of a man in a crackhouse trying to decapitate Nestor’s partner. When video of the arrest is shown on YouTube with Nestor uttering some racist invective, Nestor has his shield and gun confiscated. Then his girlfriend leaves him to go live with the porn doctor. Some Russian art forgers complicate the plot but Wolfe is nice enough to constantly recap the proceedings so no one gets lost.
A few orgies keep things lewd but the overriding concern of Cuban-American assimilation, juxtaposed against a backdrop of gaudy rich people flaunting their stuffed pockets mere miles away from crack addicts, gives new meaning to the great “melting pot” of American culture Miami-style.