Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Trial of the Century

Two great writers chronicled the sub-culture turned dominant culture of the tumultuous 60's: Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.  Thompson dove head first into the mess, developing his notorious gonzo journalism in the process.  Wolfe, meanwhile, stood off and above. 

Thompson at his best--Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72--was probably better than Wolfe, but decades of heavy drinking and indiscriminate drug use wear on a guy, and suicide puts an end to one's literary output, so Wolfe has had the longer career. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its commercial success, a lot of critics seem to hate Wolfe's fiction.  Granted, Back to Blood bears the mark of an octogenarian who has lost his fastball, and A Man in Full starts well, but reads like it was finished by a writer who had just suffered a stroke--which Wolfe had.  I found I Am Charlotte Simmons to be devastatingly brilliant, but I seem to be fairly alone in this regard, so that's a topic for another day.

This leaves us with Wolfe's debut novel: The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Here, Wolfe prophetically paints a picture of contemporary America, where race, money and violence intersect in strange ways.  Parts of his book read like transcripts from the Zimmerman trial; we can't help but think about this event in Wolfe's terminology: The Trial of the Century, the Great White Defendant, and so forth.

The details of the case are actually rather dull.  Since Martin is dead, only Zimmerman really knows what happened.  And since Zimmerman was injured, his account is as least plausible.  If this were an ordinary trial, the prosecution would probably fail to convict.  But this is no ordinary trial; the malicious media has ensured that if Zimmerman walks, there will be Chaos in the Courtroom, and... blood in the streets.  It could be an interesting summer.

When it comes to crime in America, the depressing reality, as Wolfe recounts, is that it's mostly blacks killing other blacks.  So when the pattern is reversed and a white guy killed a black guy--never mind that the white guy isn't white, and that the black guy may have attacked him--we get a chance to excise our sins by placing our white guilt onto the scapegoat. 

If you want to understand race in America, and the Zimmerman case in particular, Bonfire is simply a must read. 

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