The great shame of Tom Wolfe’s writing is that he waited so late in life to turn to fiction. Wolfe was 56 when he finally published his first novel,
The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987. Before that, in a series of essays and nonfiction books that appeared between 1965 and 1981, he established himself as arguably North America’s premier social commentator and most biting satirist. Those books, ranging from The Kandy-Kolored TangerineFlake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Right Stuff (1979), made clear Wolfe’s uncanny gift for dialogue and dialect, keen eye for detail and penchant for long, soaring sentences borne aloft by startling adjectives.
Those qualities are tailor-made for fiction. And all are present in A Man in Full, a sometimes-windy mega-book that does to Atlanta and the 1990s what Wolfe did to New York
City and the 1980s in his previous novel. Wolfe’s new tome has its problems: at 742 pages, it could have benefited from a major trimming down. And it does not end so much as simply trail off, leaving some plotlines unresolved and thereby rendering some characters irrelevant. But A Man in Full contains such powerful comedy, compassion and pathos that the flaws are easily overwhelmed.
Despite the book’s length, its plot is relatively simple. Charlie Croker, a 60-year-old former college football hero turned millionaire real estate developer, is barrelling downfield towards bankruptcy because of a failed investment in an office complex bearing his name. Croker’s fall, if it comes, will strip him of his Gulfstream V aircraft, his 12,000-hectare quail-hunting plantation, the affection of his twenty something trophy second wife—and his self-image as a successful product of the Old South. A large part of Croker’s problem is that he keeps running into signs of the more open, baffling New South: influential black lawyers, millionaire
Jewish liberals and financial institutions that care more about receiving bill payments on time than engaging in old-style cronyism.
All of those elements converge when black football star Fareek (The Cannon) Fanon is accused of raping the daughter of a Croker acquaintance who is also one of Atlanta’s most important white businessmen. Croker’s coincidental connection to that event, which threatens to shatter the city’s tenuous social peace, holds the key to his future.
Into that mix Wolfe, who was born and raised in Richmond, Va., introduces several subplots and characters. Conrad Hensley, a young blue-collar worker whose fate becomes tied to that of Croker, is the book’s tragic everyman, done in at every turn by his belief in the fairness of life. Roger (Too) White is a black lawyer with a white firm, torn between his community roots and his material ambitions. Raymond Peepgass is a mid-level bank official who seems to exist largely as a window through which Wolfe can limn the absurdities of Atlanta’s social structure.
One of Wolfe’s great strengths is his ability to create characters who are sympathetic despite their unlikable qualities. Charlie Croker is at turns foolish, self-centred, arrogant and patronizing in his attitude towards black people. Despite all that, Croker is not evil: rather, he is a social dinosaur, mystified by the fact that the world he grew up in has metamorphosed into a society that mocks and rejects the things he holds dear. One example is Croker’s beloved quail hunts, “a ritual in which the male of the human species acted out his role of hunter, provider and protector, and the female acted as if this was part of the natural, laudable, excellent and compelling order of things.” Instead, Charlie’s wife, Serena, “makes a determined effort not to laugh in the old shooters’ faces.”
As always, Wolfe’s renditions of events stand on their own as set pieces. One is a hilarious description of Croker at a $2,000-ahead museum dinner for an exhibition featuring lurid renditions of gay prison scenes. Others are a harrowing description of life in a drug-ridden poor black neighborhood, and a no-less-chilling look through the eyes of Hensley at life in a penitentiary. Still, at times, Wolfe’s quest for realism becomes downright baffling. The average reader needs the equivalent of subtitles to understand the convicts, who say things like: “Da whole pod, brah—dah whole pod, dey wen spahk dat beeg moke sit down wi’ one new fish, you brah.” Whatever.
That, like other quibbles, amounts to a minor caveat. A Man in Full, like all great books, satisfies on several levels: it is informative, entertaining and thought-provoking. When it ends, the biggest regret is not the uncertain, contrived finish; it is that the book has come to a close. With A Man in Full, as in real life, the fun is in getting there.
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