I have always been a fan of Tom Wolfe, ever since his first book came out in 1965 with the modest title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. I have followed his work through the years with admiration , as he combined his Yale Ph.D. analytical intelligence with his journalist’s love of getting deep into sweaty crowds, and his shameless . . . Heeeewack! . . . love of dramatic utterances on the page.
It deserved the title, “The New Journalism,” and he was the ultimate master of the form.
I was delighted when after The Right Stuff, in 1979, he turned his hand to fiction, and was not surprised when his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a spectacular success, selling 800,000 copies in hardcover and being hailed (to the rage of the Updike, Mailer, and Irving old guard) as the great American novel of the decade.
When a not very successful movie was made of his fine book, Wolfe was asked, anxiously, how he felt about the movie. His reply was perfect: “I cashed the cheque.”
And of course, he has made a success of his novels since then, turning his laser-like attention to different groups in a variety of American cities. His latest book, set in Florida, is entitled Back to Blood. An unusual title, and it rang faint bells. I went back to my edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and started to read the opening scene. The Jewish Mayor of New York is up in Harlem at a public meeting, and is getting a very rough ride from the hostile crowd. As the volume of racial hostility swells, he thinks about how basic all this is:
“Oh, she’s afraid like all the rest! She knows she should stand up against this element! They’ll go after black people like her next! They’ll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!”
Fascinating. That phrase occurs on page 6 of a 659-page novel published in 1987. In 2012 the phrase Tom Wolfe invented re-appears as the title of his new book. Has he been waiting all those years to use it again, this time as a title?
How authors arrive at titles is often surprising and revealing. Not many people know, for example, that although Two Solitudes seems to be such a perfect title for Hugh Maclennan’s 1945 novel, he only came across it (in a book review!) when the novel was two-thirds written. Surely there must be room for a worthy Ph.D. thesis here . . . did Scott Fitzgerald try the phone book, aware that The Great Smith didn’t really work? Did Morley Callaghan comb through the Bible, rejecting And His Ox and His Ass in favour of More Joy in Heaven? And did some authors fixate on a perfect title, then invent a book to go with it?
Start your engines.
A final Tom Wolfe note. When I was a boy editor, around 1970, my company, Doubleday Canada, distributed Tom Wolfe’s books. So when he came to Toronto to give a speech promoting one of his new books (it may have been Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers) I joined the carload taking him up to York University. In those days York was perched away on the edge of Toronto, more part of the flat hinterlands than of the (now-encroaching) city. As I explained the history of the young university to our visitor, he gazed around at all of the widely spread new buildings. He thought hard, then said: “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”
My York University friends, including my daughter-in-law Lauren, who teaches there, are restrained in their enthusiasm for this comment.