With 1998’s A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe set out to do for (or possibly to) Atlanta and the south what he did for (or possibly to) New York City with his 1987 epic novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bonfire is, for me, the most important novel of the late 20th century, with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis closing in right on its heels for that honor.
Wolfe was one of the pioneers of the New Journalism of the 1960’s. His writings from that era are essential to understanding the late 60’s and early 70’s of American culture and politics. This form of journalism–highly subjective and one in which the journalist becomes part of the story–was taken to its extreme in the form of Gonzo journalism by Hunter S. Thompson.
Wolfe brings that style of New Journalism into his novels. Rather than traditional narration, we get multiple viewpoints from multiple characters. (As was the case with Bonfire.) We don’t feel like we’re watching from a safe distance; we are on the ground and running with each of these characters. He also brings his keen eye for America’s racial, cultural, and social issues.
In A Man in Full we meet a young and well-intentioned man named Conrad who becomes incarcerated after refusing to accept a plea deal for a minor crime committed during a difficult and odd experience he was involved in. While inside he accidentally receives a book by Epictetus and–after reluctantly deciding to read it–becomes a great admirer of the Stoics, Greek philosophy, and mythology.
But let’s back up. The main character is Charlie Croker…a man in half? Charlie is a former college football star now in his 60’s and with an Atlanta business empire that has come under attack by his creditor, a local bank. His empire–private jets, skyscraper, lands, and food distribution facilities (one of which Conrad worked at in northern California)–is crumbling under the burden of massive debt. Charlie is a good old boy, self made and cocksure. Arrogant and manly in a most southern way. He owns a sprawling plantation and has many black employees who tend to it, and to him. Charlie is a good old boy, remarried and remade.
We learn of a young black Georgia Tech star football player, Fareek Fanon (whose name is reminiscent of real life revolutionary and author Frantz Fanon), from a poor area of Atlanta who has been accused–only through rumor and conjecture but not through the court system–of raping a young white woman who happens to be the daughter of a fellow good old boy and empire builder. A man Charlie knows well.
The mayor of Atlanta, a black man worrying about re-election as well as the racial conflicts that could be incited due to the nature and high profile of the Fanon accusation, enlists the help of an old friend and lawyer in an attempt to prevent the volcano from erupting. Interestingly enough, the rape accusation has only–as far as the general public is aware–appeared on the internet. Wolfe hit a subtle and quick home run here with this foreshadowing of how the internet will impact society, particularly when it comes to the out of control gossip and slander that has become prevalent. The fear is that the accusation alone will be evidence of a crime. Guilty until proven innocent. (Note: For a more harrowing version of this idea read the story of Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial.)
Roger Too White, the lawyer so enlisted by the mayor, informs Charlie that they are aware of his financial issues; that if he plays along they’ll make sure his debt is restructured. They’ll make sure Charlie doesn’t lose everything. All in exchange for a brief press conference that the Mayor hopes will ease some of the mounting racial tension. Charlie–the rich white ex-football star–coming to the defense of Fareek–a current black football star from one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods–they believe, will help relieve much of that tension.
The story progresses with a northern California earthquake, an equine mating ritual, and a down on his luck banker scheming to become the man he despises (Charlie), going so far as to enter a relationship with Charlie’s ex-wife.
Wolfe has so much blood running through the many veins of this circulatory system of a story that you might think it would become bogged down and bloated, but it doesn’t. It is Wolfe, once again, at his satirical best. Many of the themes here seem to have been recycled from Bonfire, and that would be the place to start for anyone wishing to read Wolfe at his peak.
The end of A Man in Full seemed a bit anti-climactic. There is so much going on as the story unfolds that the reader expects some impressive pyrotechnics towards the end. Wolfe’s writings are definitely windows into time and place, capturing the tenor and mood of certain parts of America during certain times–with some very prescient warnings for a society increasingly divided along class and racial lines.