A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 742 pp. $28.95
In a manifesto published in Harper’s in 1989, Tom Wolfe rued the tendency of modern novelists to take shelter in “minimalist” tales about their own personal experience. In their place, Wolfe called for a “new social novel,” along the lines of the sweeping narratives of the 19th century. What American literature needed, he wrote, was an infusion of “Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis.”
Much of what we treasure in these older writers, Wolfe opined, was their reporting on life as they found it. If this sounded self-serving—reporting, after all, was Wolfe’s metier, the beat on which he had made his name with such now-canonical works as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)—he could by now flourish a novelist’s proven credentials. His own big, brawny, well-researched first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1988), had spent the good part of a year on the best-seller lists. “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature,” he concluded, “we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours and reclaim its literary property.”
Wolfe’s second best-selling novel, A Man in Full, is intended to serve as another such work of reclamation. It is the story of sixty-year-old Charlie Croker, an under-educated ex-college-football star who has developed much of the skyline of Atlanta, Georgia, out of sheer elan vital. Along the way, he has picked up several businesses, a Gulf-stream-5 jet, a ludicrous 29,000-acre antebellum plantation (called “Turpmtine”) that he uses for quail hunting and writes off as an “experimental farm,” and a wife who is less than half his age. Now he has plowed hundreds of millions of his own and other people’s money into a 40-story office building for which he cannot find tenants. When we meet him, the creditors are closing in.
As in Bonfire, Wolfe garlands his story with sharply observed vignettes. No scene in A Man in Full has been more widely or justly praised than the “workout session” in which loan officers make it their project to humiliate Charlie and get him to feel like the delinquent debtor (“shithead,” in their parlance) that he is. Placing him in a seat guaranteed to catch glare from the window, they prepare him a cup of rancid coffee and send in a pudgy little “workout artiste” who wears suspenders with a skull-and-crossbones motif and assaults Charlie until “the saddlebags”—patches of panic-induced sweat—spread from under his arms to meet at his sternum.
A Man in Full is replete with such observed minutiae—examples of Wolfe’s vaunted “reporting.” What they are in the service of, however, is a matter of some contention. In his review of the novel in the New Yorker, John Updike wrote that “In a strange but honorable way, Wolfe has attempted a Great Black Novel.” And there is, indeed, a strong racial plot line that arises out of Charlie’s financial misery.
Georgia Tech’s star running back, a ghetto hoodlum named Fareek Fanon, has been accused of raping the daughter of one of Charlie’s friends, a pillar of the good-‘ol-boy establishment. But Atlanta’s black mayor, facing reelection, needs to prevent racial unrest, and Georgia Tech’s football coach must have Fareek in the backfield. The two enlist an old friend of the mayor, the cultivated lawyer Roger White II (“Roger Too White” to his fellow black Atlantans), to approach Croker with a quid pro quo: appeal for calm in the name of Atlanta’s white elite, and we will call off the bank’s dogs.
But in the end Updike is mistaken. Although a wide variety of black characters does populate these pages, ranging from Fareek Fanon to an ex-basketball-playing political firebrand to a corrupt mayor to a radical newspaper editor, most of them are dealt with rather superficially, and their variety stems largely from Wolfe’s acute ability to transcribe idiosyncratic physical details like their clothes and their speech patterns. In other respects, A Man in Full does not take race seriously enough to be about race.
What it does take seriously is sex, and in particular masculinity. Wolfe’s prose is itself sexual, metaphorically lush with the “loamy loins” of women and the “green breasts” of lawns and bank executives “bulging with testosterone” and the “testicular squall” of shouting prison inmates. Moreover, the passages rendered with the most genuine pathos are those in which it dawns on Charlie that he has made a colossal mistake in leaving his first wife for his second, a “boy with breasts” who can offer him only sex. “Your first wife,” he thinks, “married you for better or for worse. Your second wife, particularly if you were sixty and she was a twenty-eight-year-old number like Serena—why kid yourself?—she married you for better.”
Indeed, if A Man in Full has a theme, it is—as John Podhoretz, writing in the Weekly Standard, was alone among critics in stressing—manhood. “He has this . . . thing about Southern manhood,” says one of Charlie’s business associates; so does Wolfe. In the novel, other men, like Charlie’s accountant, “the Wiz,” are constantly being measured against Croker and found wanting:
The Wiz looked upon him as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large, and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of the corporation and that [the Wiz] should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of fate. . . . Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he didn’t: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn’t want, didn’t need, and never thought about before. . . . And that thing was manhood. It was as simple as that.
Of course, Charlie’s virility is worth little once the accountants and naysayers—the weaklings, the milquetoasts—take over. Much of the book is about his attempts to find a manly way out of this crisis, or, even, a place where it is possible to be manly. When Charlie and his friend Billy Bass—an archetypal redneck lout who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a gentleman in private—start joking about AIDS over dinner, to the horror of Charlie’s guests, Charlie asks: “If a man couldn’t speak his mind and be a man here, where the hell could he?”
A profoundly bleak view of American society emerges from such scenes. Rather than the “baroque,” “hog-stomping” country Wolfe pictured in 1989, the America of A Man in Full is squeamish, conformist, politically correct, and intolerant of “big” characters like Charlie Croker.
For Charlie, at any rate, the way out of the man-swallowing morass requires a major secondary plot line that will not intersect with his until the last hundred pages of the novel. Since liquidating his luxuries is out of the question, Croker instead lays off thousands of employees in his various enterprises. One of these is Conrad Hensley, a deeply intelligent twenty-four-year-old freezer-packer. A family man and self-identified “bourgeois,” in rebellion against his hippie parents’ ethic of “Go with the flow,” Conrad dreams of buying a condo on his $14-an-hour wage. Through a series of mishaps he winds up convicted of manslaughter, and while in prison accidentally comes into possession of an anthology of ancient Stoic philosophy. This becomes the agent of his liberation and—when the two characters inevitably meet—of Charlie’s redemption as a man.
Given the power and resonance of Wolfe’s materials, and the suggestive rightness of his theme at this particular moment in our sexual history, it would be wonderful to report that A Man in Full delivers completely on its rich promise. Alas, that is not the case. Although, for instance, the freezer plant where Conrad works is capably evoked in all its particulars, such evocations outrun Wolfe’s ability to make novelistic sense of them. Similarly with his efforts to use Conrad as an exemplar. So two-dimensionally heroic are the passages in which this figure appears that one critic (Martin Amis) has properly characterized them as “for-younger-readers” writing. Take, for example, the fight scene where Conrad breaks the hands of a prison bully:
“Awwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhh!” A groan, very nearly a howl, rose from deep inside the brute. His eyes closed, and his face became terribly contorted. He kept clawing at Conrad’s hand, but now Conrad forced his wrist over backward. The brute had no choice but to try to shift his weight to get out from under the fierce torque.
That the proletarian hero of A Man in Full should be so much less convincing than the plutocratic one may be evidence that Wolfe is better at writing about the upper echelons of society than about the lower. But whatever the source of the difficulty, his failure to realize Conrad creates a serious imbalance. In a novel devoted to manliness, we get a realistic depiction of only one kind—and it is a particularly narrow kind.
Manhood in these pages is something almost purely biological, or anatomical, with “man” being a virtual synonym for “beast.” Charlie’s firmly held theory is that “if you lost your sexual drive, you lost everything, your energy, your daring, your imagination.” Later: “He knew the truth in his loins.” In this sense, if there is anything 19th-century about A Man in Full, it comes not from the many-splendored social realism of a Balzac or a Dickens but from Zola’s biological naturalism, in which characters act as ciphers for some larger “life-force.” And just as Zola’s fiction rests, to a degree that embarrasses his champions, on a crude popular Darwinism, Wolfe’s world view could almost be lifted from a text by Konrad Lorenz.
This is hardly to say that A Man in Full is without its delights, many of them already alluded to—though here, too, a qualification is needed. Wolfe’s greatest strength lies, in fact, less in his reporting than in the talents, largely satirical, he has always brought to his reporting.
First among these is a gleeful sense of humor, most obviously on display in a punsmanship that lights up Wolfe’s work in an almost Joycean fashion. In A Man in Full, one pro-basketball player is named You Gene Jones, and the half-dozen law firms have names like Clockett, Paddet, Skynnham & Glote. Then there is Wolfe’s formidable gift for parody: unable to fall asleep, Charlie sits in his dressing room with a copy of a “business book” titled The Paper Millionaire, struggling to get past the flap copy: “In the course of his astonishing career, Roger Shashoua made it, lost it, made it, lost it, made it yet again and then, with impeccable timing, walked away from it all.” The effects Wolfe achieves by these means, and by means of the dozens of literary practical jokes buried with exquisite artfulness in his pages, are dazzling.
To his great credit, Tom Wolfe has identified some of the real difficulties that beset the modern novelist, and over the course of two big books has made a strenuous effort—a manly effort—to show us what a remedy would look like. In so doing, he has fashioned vividly fresh scenes, first out of mid-1980’s New York and then out of mid-1990’s Atlanta, and he has brought to bear spectacular satiric gifts. No more in his case than in the case of other recent “big” writers, however, is there any shortcut around the novelist’s test of all tests, which is to create plausible characters acting in ways that convey human truths of lasting significance. That “battalion of Zolas” he called for brings much to the novel-writing table, and for this we have reason to be very grateful; the pity is that it does not bring everything.