Most undergraduates were about 10 years old when Tom Wolfe's explosive first book, Bonfire of the Vanities, emerged to wild popularity in the late 1980s. But do not let the terrible movie adaptation prejudice you against reading the book. Bonfire captured the black comedy of American society and justice during the Me decade; the story of Sherman McCoy's encounter with Reverend Bacon and Henry Lamb presaged the Tawana Brawley-Al Sharpton scam with eerie accuracy. Given the book's success, one can understand the promotional circus surrounding A Man in Full, Wolfe's newest book, which earned the dapper author a spot on NBC's "Today" and the cover of Time Magazine.
Wolfe takes his time with A Man in Full--he waits more than 100 pages to introduce all the main characters. The first two-thirds of the huge novel really just set the stage for the culminating action in the final chapters. Far from being a liability, A Man in Full's length gives Wolfe ample time to showcase the journalistic skills that first launched his writing career. The novel works because it is based on facts and observations gleaned from modern life, a more fertile source of material than the most gifted artist's imagination.
The plot revolves around Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real estate developer leading a luxurious life, complete with antebellum plantation and trophy wife. Croker is struggling, though, to escape the half-billion dollar debt he has accumulated through failed developments. Meanwhile, when a wealthy white family accuses a black football star of rape, Atlanta's latent racial tensions threaten to erupt chaotically to the surface. As opposing forces vie for Charlie's assets and his dignity, an unemployed California factory worker rides an almost supernatural tide of events into the heart of Atlanta, interjecting an unknown variable into the literary equation.
Wolfe treats readers to a vivid, thoroughly realistic portrait of Atlanta life. In the chapter "Lay of the Land," for example, he takes readers from the wealthy Buckhead mansions north of Atlanta, down through the bustling business district and into the slums with one seamless narrative. Current trends and ideas are summarized with pithy aphorisms: Exercise-crazed women become "Boys with Breasts" and get-rich-quick schemes induce "The Aha! Phenomenon." Wolfe entertains readers with his keen ear for dialect and penchant for Dickensian names like Armholster, Peepgass and Armentrout. And of course, when it comes to clothes, who but a dandy like Wolfe would note the difference between a twist-weave suit and a hard-finished worsted one?
Inevitably, reviews of A Man in Full revert to comparisons with Bonfire of the Vanities, and the two tales do share many common features. First of all, the plots are strikingly similar. Charlie Croker's financial crisis sounds a great deal like Sherman McCoy's. In fact, each uses the same phrase, "hemorrhaging money," to bemoan his predicament. In both books middling professionals--Raymond Peepgass and Larry Kramer--rabidly attack Croker and McCoy, respectively, in efforts to advance their own shabby ambitions. The protagonists in both novels exacerbate their problems with costly affairs, and the two books also highlight the delicate racial politics of urban America.
Some of these similarities stem from Wolfe's author-as-journalist style. Human nature today is not much different than it was 10 years ago; the struggle for money, power, sex and status would be a part of anything that describes human society. The books' similarities are too pervasive to be mere coincidence, despite several marked differences.
Charlie Croker's quest for money and power belies his desire to be a "a man in full." Images of men and masculinity pervade the novel. Physical strength and presence are a big part of Charlie's aura--he is proud of his huge frame just as Conrad (the Californian worker) is obsessed with his massive hands and arms. Croker is determined to avoid outward signs of weakness, and his pride drives him to ridiculous displays of machismo.
What ultimately separates Charlie from Sherman McCoy is his realization, on some level, of just how foolish his egotism and macho stunts are. Despite this self-knowledge, Charlie simply cannot resist defending his alpha male status in any situation. For example, having just been humiliated by his creditors, Croker decides to reassert his control by capturing a rattlesnake barehanded: "He knew that what he was about to do was foolhardy--and he knew he would do it anyway...there was no other choice but the foolhardiest possible way."
By means of equally ridiculous justifications, everyone in A Man in Full manages to land in hot water somewhere along the way. Wolfe spares no individual or institution his withering critique--he details white Atlanta's visceral fear of Freaknic and urban youths' self-centered apathy in the same breath. Often Wolfe comes across as a bit too cynical; his book virtually ignores (or denies the existence of) the better aspects of humanity. No one in A Man in Full evinces any selfless emotion, for instance, but only a desire for power and sex.
In the end, though, readers do get the hint that at least one character has transcended the egocentric world, even as the seeds of the next chapter in Atlanta's power games are being sown. After getting through all 742 pages, one other fact remains clear: Tom Wolfe has done it again. A Man in Full is a thrilling read and an insightful (if not entirely original) vignette from one of the master chroniclers of the human condition.