A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
742 pages, 1998
Buy it online
A Writer in Full
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
One has to wonder if Tom Wolfe doesn't sit down to write the Great American Novel. One can imagine him poised in a well-appointed writing studio in some Upper East Side apartment in a white linen suit; a mint julep at his elbow and a thoughtful expression on his well-worn face. He is contemplating Georgia crackers and definitions of decade as he sips and thinks, and thinks and sips before -- with an elegant crack of his knuckles -- he sets madly to work.
While I realize that the picture I'm painting here has a good chance of having missed the mark completely, it has an equally good one of hitting it pretty close given what we know about Tom Wolfe and the nature of his work. This is, after all, the man who -- in the early 1970s -- wrote the now-classic essay, Why They Aren't Writing the Great American Novel Anymore and then seemingly set about showin' 'em all how it was done.
In many ways, with the publication of A Man in Full, Wolfe has show'd 'em yet again. The sheer weight of the book makes it epic, but it is Wolfe's writing and special view of the world that brings home the fullness of the word.
Set mostly in Atlanta, the plot centers around Charles Croker, who -- as can be guessed -- is a man in full, indeed. A college football hero in his youth, Croker has risen from, "below the gnat line" of Baker County, Georgia to become one of the powerbrokers of Atlanta. He owns a 29,000 acre quail farm in Baker County, a countrywide wholesale food division, an over-decorated Buckland mansion and the jewel of his holdings: Croker Concourse, a real estate development so grand and -- to his mind -- forward-thinking it is at least a decade ahead of its time. What bears this out is the fact that most of it is vacant and the grand restaurant he planned is almost always empty. Croker Concourse -- though it might be more aptly called Croker's Folly -- might be at the center of his financial woes, but his life is unraveling for other reasons, as well. All of them touch on the secondary -- yet all important -- denizens of A Man in Full.
Conrad Hensley works in the freezer unit at one of Croker's California-based plants, until cutbacks force a layoff and the 23-year-old father of two's life goes into a sometimes painful to read downward spiral.
Raymond Peepgass (I'm not making this up) is a staff officer at PlanersBanc: the bank that holds the paper on a lot of Croker's loans. He is mild-mannered and mealy-mouthed until Croker inadvertently inspires him to "free the red dog" that has been holding him back.
Roger White II -- known since college as Roger Too White -- is the lawyer who worries that his nickname is too close to the mark. He is, "a pale-skinned bluebood" who isn't as sure of where he fits in the world as he used to be.
The title makes it predictable that A Man in Full is a manly book that is, in some ways, a rambling tower to machissmo and what that means at the end of the millenium. The male characters are by and large the best fleshed out and the story line focuses on them. There are strong and well-drawn female characters and their roles are not secondary: except in the lives of the men they've married. This sounds like an odd dichotomy, but it works here because A Man in Full is in some ways about manly things and manly men: and I don't think this is unintentional. Wolfe describes his men in very physical terms and with an artist's eye for anatomy. For example, on page one when we first meet Croker, we are immediately apprised of his physicality and his own awareness of it:
He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was. Everybody; not just his seven guests but also his six black retainers and his young wife, who was on a horse behind him near the teams of La Mancha mules that pulled the buckboard and the kennel wagon. For good measure, he flexed and fanned out the biggest muscles in his back, the latissimi dorsi, in a Charlie Croker version of a peacock or a turkey preening.
Every male character is introduced similarly: in a flurry of trapezoid muscles and sinew. Another example, from an early meeting with Fareek Fanon, the football player who a lot of the action spins around:
Even slouched back the way he was, with dreadful posture, in this dim room, the young black man radiated physical power. He wore a black polo shirt with red stripes on the collar, wide open at the throat, revealing the long, thick pair of muscles that came down the sides of his neck and inserted at the clavicle.
This intimate physical description also serves to underline Wolfe's adoration of detail. In the hands of another writer, Wolfe's love affair with minutiae could prove tedious. From Wolfe, however, the extreme detail somehow brings clarity and we get to feel like we know the characters who people A Man in Full as well as any that modern literature has offered us. Wolfe brings us so many lush characters and such unstinting background that reading is sometimes like studying a Renoir: there is color here and detail that can easily be missed on the first pass.
Wolfe uses this detail with the master's touch and even seemingly minor bits of background color add to the narrative and the feel. An example: Peepgrass is briefly in Bermuda and is struck by the foreignness of the place. By the outpost-of-empire Britishness of his surroundings. Wolfe tells us so, but he also shows us in subtle ways. In an office, the walls are described as being, "of darkest aubergine..." in a way that not only tells us what color they are, and describes their incredible richness, but also imbibes it with the Britishness he has otherwise striven to show us. American walls might be "a very dark purple" but in this British place? They are aubergine and we feel it with more clarity than we would have a British accent or a strategically placed, "old chap". This is part of Wolfe's magic.
It is only because of this magic that the ending to A Man in Full disappoints so completely. After 727 hardcover pages, the story lines of the book are packaged up neatly in a 14 page epilogue with a couple of our full men discussing the other characters and what became of them. After such a joyous ride it just feels sad to leave the characters we've grown to care about -- or despise, as the case may be -- without a proper good-bye.
Despite this less-than-stellar ending, A Man in Full might well be the literary masterwork of the decade and a fitting follow-up to Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe remains a writer in full, indeed. | December 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.