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A Man In Full (1998)
I'm sure that by now everyone is aware of the basic story of A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe's eleven-years-in-the-making, heart-surgery and-depression-interrupted, follow up to his great novel of the 80's, Bonfire of the Vanities. Charlie Croker is a 60 year old, good old boy, developer in Atlanta. A former star Georgia Tech halfback, his empire includes a game ranch, a frozen foods business and a white elephant of an office building that is bleeding him dry. Judging his success purely by the accouterments, he appears to be doing okay, with a hottie trophy wife, a Gulf Stream 5, palatial houses, etc. But his bankers smell blood in the water, one of them (Raymond Peepgass) has even secretly put together a syndicate to take over the office building at cut rate, and Charlie has to lay off some workers at the food business, including young Conrad Hensley, just to free up cash and buy some time. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech's new star halfback, Fareek Fanon, is being accused of raping the daughter of one of Charlie's wealthy society cronies. Up and coming black attorney Roger White II (Roger Too White) has been called in to handle the defense and he offers Charlie a deal: speak out in support of Fareek at a press conference orchestrated by the mayor, and they'll get the bank to back off. As Charlie wrestles with this decision, Conrad works his way across the country, converting to Stoicism in the process. Their paths all meet when Conrad is assigned to Charlie as a physical therapist after knee surgery and shares the tenets of Stoicism with him. With the press conference looming Charlie must decide whether to go along with Roger's plan, by praising Fareek, and save his empire and position in society or be true to himself, at the risk of losing everything and possibly causing race riots in Atlanta, and tell the truth, that Fareek, like many athletes, is shallow, self-centered, pampered and arrogant.
Of course, interspersed with this basic narrative, Wolfe provides the myriad details, learned expositions, social observations and zeitgeist probings for which he is justly famous. These elements of the novel, if not quite up to the level of his best work (Radical Chic, Bauhaus to Our House, The Right Stuff and Bonfire), are still very funny, extremely insightful and wildly ambitious. He really just blows the doors off of most other novelists, simply by being willing to attempt such a massive portrait of America.
If you just take that set up, it looks like this is merely an updating of Bonfire--rich guy's world collapsing, racial tension, etc.. But the real risk taking, the nearly masochistic reach that Wolfe makes here, is in his portrayal of Conrad Hensley. For over thirty years, Wolfe has been a master of the social satire. He has basically made a career out of pricking the gonfalon bubbles of America's most ostentatious and self-important cultural elites. But once in a great while one of his subjects has managed to pierce the ironic veil and make him stumble. The two who spring to mind most readily are the race car driver Junior Johnson (read his profile "The Last American Hero") and Chuck Yeager (read Orrin's review of The Right Stuff). Both of these men penetrated Wolfe's ironic detachment and he ended up portraying them as genuine unalloyed American heroes. Now it's perfectly understandable that this point was lost in his pretty substantial corpus of work, but with Conrad it becomes clear what was going on all along; they are all Men in Full.
When Conrad is in prison and has just discovered the teachings of Epictetus and the other Stoics, he finds himself in a situation that clearly portends his own rape and asks:
What would Epictetus have done with this bunch?
What could he have done? How could you
There in a nutshell is what Wolfe has been looking for throughout his decades long journey through the American landscape--modern successors to Epictetus, men who live and die like men, who simply do the right thing. He had found two such men in Yeager and Johnson and now, for the first time, he has created a fictional character in their image. And Conrad becomes the vehicle through which Wolfe demonstrates that there is still a tiny flame of genuine decency burning within modern man.
This is the point at which the book becomes truly remarkable. Because Tom Wolfe--68, ill, depressed, snide, old Tom Wolfe--allows Charlie Croker to redeem himself. What a symbol of hope the author holds out to us. Charlie Croker who has been as caught up in the games and role playing of our vacuous modern world as any of the characters, real or fictional, that Wolfe has ever described, finds it within himself to become a man in full, to do the right thing, to live like a man. It turns out that Wolfe is a romantic at heart. His long career attacking pretense is suddenly cast in a different light. It turns out he's been trying to get us to strip away our materialist, politically correct, corporatist, conformist, opportunistic outer selves and become Stoics. Many of the critics refer to this book as Wolfe's most humane work and it is to this realization that they are unknowingly referring. After thirty some odd years of poking fun at people, we find out that he's trying to save their souls.
Of course, all of this is an invitation to ridicule. It's bad enough if you are merely a brilliant conservative. Worse still to be one of the great journalists of all time, and a conservative. Much worse to be a great novelist, and a conservative. But now, here comes the worst blow of all; you just can't be a brilliant journalist/novelist who's a compassionate conservative; you overload the circuits. But at the end of the day that is what we are left with. Radical Chic and Right Stuff established him as a first rate journalist. Bonfire and Man in Full elevate him to the first rank of novelists. If his politics weren't galling enough before, here he is juxtaposing an AID's benefit with a prison rape and calling on us to return to a moral philosophy that predates (and influenced) Christ. And here, in the twilight of his career, it becomes obvious that the Conrad Hensleys and the human possibilities of a Charlie Croker are central to his vision of man. No wonder the reviews are so wildly contradictory and even self-contradictory. The left wing establishment does not even seem to understand what Wolfe has set out to do, but what they do understand, they clearly don't like.
Take a look at what the critics take issue with in his work. Wolfe's
critics dislike his politics. Well of course they do, his moral politics
are fundamentally two millenia old and profoundly conservative. They
say his female characters are weak. Of course they are; he's uninterested
in women. All of his work turns out to be an attempt to understand modern
men. They say he only presents characters' surface personae, not
their inner beings. That's his point; we've abandoned our inner beings,
our natural selves, and we live the lives we project to people.
In the final analysis, this is a flawed novel. But they are mostly flaws of excess, of overreaching, and do we really want to take our best authors to task for being to generous with their vision, for trying to hard? One wonders why you have to rush a book to the printers after 11 years in the making and I've begun to despair of the likelihood that book editors will ever do their jobs again. It's repetitious in some places, it's self indulgent at times (just because Wolfe did research on obscure stuff doesn't mean we need or want to know what he found out) and the book cries out to either be trimmed back in order to further focus the story or to have some of the material that was cut put back in, in order to tie up loose ends. It seems to me that Wolfe did his job; he turned in a sprawling epic that had material for more than one book. It was the editors who failed; they failed in their fundamental duty, to take the raw material and help shape it into the best form possible. As you read, there is a nagging sense that a superior book lurks within this pretty good one. But hell, it's hard to be too upset about a pretty good book, especially when it takes soi many chances and succeeds on so many levels.
The book ends with a character promising: "Oh, don't worry...I'll be back." Let's hope that Tom Wolfe too will be back. Let's hope there's at least one more shaggy behemoth of a novel left in him.
Charlie Herzog's Review:
-ESSAY: The Building That Isn't There (TOM WOLFE, 10/12/03, NY Times)
-ESSAY: The Building That Isn't There, Cont'd: One of the most important buildings in the history of 20th-century architecture will soon be vaporized. (TOM WOLFE, 10/13/03, NY Times)
-AUDIO: A TimesTalks Event: Tom Wolfe (NY Times, 3/08/03)
-QUESTIONS: Tom Wolfe: Following his participation in the TimesTalks series on March 8, the author answered NYTimes.com readers' questions. (NY Times, April 24, 2003)
-ESSAY: REVOLUTIONARIES: how the Manhattan Institute changed New York City and America (Tom Wolfe, January 30, 2003, NY Post)
-ESSAY: Idea Fashions of the Eighties: After Marx, What? (Tom Wolfe, January 1984, Imprimis)
-PROFILE: Status Reporter: Tom Wolfe's advice: Escape the "parenthesis states" and explore America (JOSEPH RAGO, March 11, 2006, Opinion Journal)
-INTERVIEW: Mummy Wrap: an interview with Tom Wolfe (George Neumayr, 1/10/2005, American Spectator)
-ESSAY: Bush's Official Reading List, and a Racy Omission (ELISABETH BUMILLER, 2/07/05, NY Times)
Modern, All Too Modern: Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will.: a review of of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Tom Wolfe - A Clear Eye for Human Biodiversity (Steve Sailer, January 02, 2005, V-Dare)
-REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Dana B. Vachon, American Conservative)
-REVIEW: of I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (Ken Masugi, Claremont.org)
-REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Priya Jain, Salon)
-REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)
Book-related and General Links:
-Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full
-Caricature from The Atlantic
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "tom wolfe"
-FEATURED AUTHOR: Tom Wolfe (NY Times Book Review)
-ARCHIVES : "tom wolfe" (Find Articles)
-Creative Nonfiction: Writers and Their Works
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe : What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American's World
-ESSAY : Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died (Tom Wolfe, Forbes)
-ETEXT: The Last American Hero by Tom Wolfe
-EXCERPT: from A Man in Full : Prologue
-EXCERPT: from A Man in Full : Chapter Two
-ESSAY: Disciplines: What do a Jesuit priest, a Canadian communications theorist, and Darwin II all have in common? (Tom Wolfe, Forbes)
-REVIEW: of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ROY COHN By Sidney Zion Dangerous Obsessions (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of CECIL BEATON A Biography. By Hugo Vickers SNOB'S PROGRESS (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE LAST LAUGH By S.J. Perelman THE EXPLOITS OF EL SID (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
-INTERVIEW: "TOM WOLFE AND HIS CRITICS" (Firing Line)
-INTERVIEW : Tom Wolfe, in Full (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Lit Kit)
-INTERVIEW (Steve Hammer NUVO Newsweekly)
-PROFILE : BRILLIANT CAREERS : Tom Wolfe : He put New Journalism on the map with writing that shook as fiercely as it shimmered. (CARY TENNIS, Salon)
-PROFILE: TOM WOLFE, MATERIAL BOY (Rand Richards Cooper, Commonweal)
-Profile: Tom Wolfe, in 'Full' flower (USA Today)
-PROFILE : The Wolfe in Chic Clothing : Manliness runs a deep course through American life, but it is hard to find at Harvard, says Tom Wolfe.The celebrated author explains the contemporary male. FM returns the favor and examines Wolfe's own dubious masculinity (James Y. Stern, Harvard Crimson)
-PROFILE: TOM WOLFE (Richard A. Kallan)
-PROFILE: Don Dapper: Tom Wolfe conquers windmills on Brown's battlefield (Amanda Griscom)
-Tom Wolfe: The Satirist of Society (Caitlin Allen, Brighton High School)
-ESSAY : November 4, London.(Below the Fold)(The Lancet)
-ESSAY : ON LANGUAGE : Hooking Up (WILLIAM SAFIRE, NY Times Magazine)
-ESSAY : Schooling Public Intellectuals : A Talking Head Ph.D. (Norah Vincent, Village Voice)
-REVIEW: A Man Half Full (Norman Mailer, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of A Man in Full By Tom Wolfe. (Michael Lewis, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of A Man in Full (PJ O'Rourke, Policy Review)
-REVIEW : of A Man in Full Tom Wolfe, Entertaining Pop Writer, Doesn't Pass the Balzac Acid Test (Harold Bloom, NY Observer)
-REVIEW : of Man in Full (Martin Amis, booksunlimited)
-REVIEW: Tom Wolfe's Rooftop Yawp His crackling novel deserves to be news. But America is better than Wolfe's Atlanta. (George F. Will, Newsweek)
-REVIEW: A Man in Full (Tom Walker, Denver Post Books Editor)
-REVIEW: Georgia on His Mind: Tom Wolfe takes on the New South in 'A Man in Full' (Malcolm Jones Jr., Newsweek)
-REVIEW: Wolfe takes full measure of 'Man' (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today)
-REVIEW: of A Man in Full (Sven Birkerts, The Atlantic)
-REVIEW: A Riot of Egomania (Ty Hudson, Yale Review of Books)
-REVIEW of A Man in Full: From he-man to holy man (Salon)
-REVIEW of A Man in Full, The White Stuff (jeffrey eugenides, Voice Literary Supplement)
-REVIEW : of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Jerome Kramer, Book Magazine)
-REVIEW: J. Peder Zane: Far from empty, not quite full (News and Observer)
-REVIEW: A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Christopher Caldwell, Commentary)
-REVIEW: BookBrowser Review
-REVIEW: Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic (Jordan Hoffman)
-REVIEW: of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (FRITZ LANHAM, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW: Tom Wolfe still has the right stuff, despite snub by left-wing literary set (Chuck Moss, Detroit News)
-REVIEW: The culture's lone Wolfe The chronicler of radical chic and trophy wives captures the nineties in his new novel (Gene Edward Veith, World)
-REVIEW : of Man in Full (Warren Berger, Book Magazine)
-REVIEW : of A Man in Full (Ty Hudson, Yale Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of A Man in Full By Tom Wolfe (Rhoda Koenig, Literary Review)