Editor’s note: This book review by Rich Lowry appeared in the November 23, 1998, issue of National Review.
If you always wanted to know what happens in a horse breeding barn — exactly how the mare is strapped down, and how she is aroused, and how the stud is maneuvered into place, and much more — you will find out in A Man in Full (it makes romance in the White House, by the way, look positively appetizing in comparison).
In a famous 1989 manifesto, Tom Wolfe took his scourge to contemporary novelists, trying to drive them out of the writing workshops and into the streets, to discover America, to report. In A Man in Full, Wolfe reports in lavish detail about such a range of human — and equestrian — activities that the effect is like one of those hyper-realistic paintings that makes you pause: Is it a painting or is it a photograph?
Is it a novel or is it journalism? Wolfe’s prose is so rich and his sense of narrative pacing so perfect that the reader will gulp down chunks of this novel like a tired swimmer gasping for air. It moves. Or, as the punctuation — happy Wolfe might have put it back in the heyday of the “New Journalism,” IT MOVES!!!!!
This shouldn’t be a surprise. For two decades, Wolfe proved himself one of journalism’s most acute social observers, an electric writer with a jeweler’s eye for detail and a bite every bit as dangerous as one of the rattlesnakes his new protagonist, Charlie Croker, keeps on his Georgia plantation. Then, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe wrote an exquisitely reported, acerbic satire of 1980s Manhattan that coasted on the New York Times best-seller list for 56 weeks.
Now, 11 years later, this — more than seven hundred pages of high-octane Wolfe. The setting has moved from New York to Atlanta, but all the well-established Wolfe themes are here: luxurious living, debt, PC posturing, race, and, above all, status. The bonfire of the vanities is still smoldering, only now the characters crawling over at each other like lobsters in a supermarket aquarium speak with Southern accents.
Charlie Croker is an aging, arrogant, Atlanta real-estate developer. His life of conquest and good-old-boy machismo is collapsing into an unmanageable bundle of worries: How to handle his demanding trophy wife? How to keep impressing friends at his outlandish plantation, complete with a 59-horse stable (with another foal on the way, if all goes well in the breeding barn)? And, most pressing of all, how to hold off the bank threatening his badly over-extended real-estate empire?
Around Croker, Wolfe creates an array of entertaining characters, including: Croker’s weight-obsessed first wife huffing through aerobics classes, a sweet-natured 23-year-old father of two lugging 80-pound bags at a Croker warehouse in California, and a black lawyer, Roger White II, who is employed at one of Atlanta’s top white firms and will meet Croker through the novel’s central story line.
An All-American Georgia Tech running back, Fareek “The Cannon” Fanon, is accused of rape by the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most prominent white businessmen, threatening the city’s fragile racial harmony. The way Wolfe weaves in and out of his characters’ lives and sweeps them toward a denouement involving all of them is masterful. If Wolfe were a baseball player, scouts would say he has “all the tools.”
Oddly enough, this contributes to a minor weakness; the novel is too long. Sometimes it feels as if material is included simply because Wolfe can write anything well. Another weakness is the novel’s similarity to Bonfire. Moving the action to Atlanta makes for a new setting, but Croker sometimes seems just Sherman McCoy with a plantation: a high-flying corporate type who has trouble living within his ample means.
Racial tension, of course, is another Bonfire theme. Elsewhere, Terry Teachout writes about what it means to be a conservative novelist (see page 53). One thing it certainly means in the 1990s is being free of liberal sentimentality about race. Wolfe takes full advantage of the freedom, giving us black characters who are-gasp!-hustlers or thugs or otherwise untouched by any gauzy, false nobility.
So, A Man in Full is similar to Bonfire. Is it better? Critics have rightly pointed out that Croker is more deeply etched than McCoy, who like other Bonfire characters seems a cut-out target for Wolfe’s delicious malice. The reader is allowed into Croker’s perspective — and that of other characters — enough to make them mildly sympathetic, despite all their pathetic, grasping flaws. Then there is Conrad the warehouse worker, a departure for Wolfe both as a working-class character and a nice guy.
And, yet, a criticism Joseph Epstein made of Bonfire still applies to A Man in Full. It is all status, all vanity, all competition. Rarely does a moment pass in A Man in Full without a character comparing his status with everyone else’s and jockeying for position. The unceasing calculation becomes dizzying. If this is all there is to the world, by all means, start the bonfire right away. Where are simple folly, joy, conviction, love?
Conrad often acts without guile. But he is tossed into an environment that is Wolfe’s social world perfectly distilled — an Alameda County, California, jail. The jail scenes are vivid, terrifying, and altogether excellent. But they are most notable for how they mimic the outside: status is everything in a world boiled down to sheer male aggression and sexual predation. Even Conrad must bully and flex his forearms to survive in jail and to thrive in everyday life.
Conrad also introduces another new element into the Wolfe world — religious conviction. The role Conrad’s religion plays in the novel is open to interpretation, but by the end Wolfe almost seems to regard it as crazy, as something that should be hauled away on Ken Kesey’s bus. Religion’s other entry in the book is a scene where Roger visits a ghetto church; it’s an occasion for more sartorial and socioeconomic comparison, which brings us right back to status.
Why is Wolfe so obsessed with it? Well, it has always been one of his favorite subjects. But it is also in the air (or the Zeitgeist, as everyone puts it when writing about Wolfe). In a long piece in Forbes ASAP two years ago, Wolfe wrote about the “new Darwin,” sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, and trends in neuroscience that support Wilson’s view that millennia of evolutionary competition have “hard-wired” us with selfish, Charlie Croker genes. Wolfe thinks that were he a student today he would find these hot new fields of research irresistible.
As it is, Wolfe is novelist as sociobiologist; the action in A Man in Full often isn’t that different from the monkey-eat-monkey intrigue and sexual politics described in the recent sociobiological tract Demonic Males. There is something to be said for this — human nature is grubby and selfish. But it is not the whole story. A man in full? Tom Wolfe, now one of our most important novelists, has yet to make it clear he thinks such a thing exists.