Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

Tom Wolfe can’t rap. In “A Man in Full,” he gamely attempts to invent lyrics for an artist he calls, none too convincingly, Doctor Rammer Doc Doc, and his ear turns to tin. The song, “Ram Yo’ Booty,” is arguably the least believable fictional representation of hip-hop to grace the pages of a National Book Award nominee.

So much for what Wolfe does wrong. In this massive, spectacularly ambitious, superbly observed, and ruthlessly funny novel — his first since 1987’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — much more goes thrillingly right. Let other novelists fuss over works that critics can describe as “perfect miniatures.” “A Man in Full” is a Lincoln Continental, an Eiffel Tower, an Everest created by a robust maximalist who picks up the ’80s preoccupations of “Bonfire” — urban race relations, class, power, status, sex, and most of all money — and runs with them all the way into the millennial end zone.

To get there, Wolfe interweaves the stories of three men, one immensely wealthy, one middle-class, one poor, and all broke. Charlie Croker is a 60-year-old Atlanta real estate mogul, such a strapping synthesis of new money and Old South that he owns both a fleet of jets and a plantation called Turpmtine. Raymond Peepgass is a mealy-spirited loan officer who sees the promise of personal riches in Croker’s financial woes. And across the country, 23-year-old Conrad Hensley is a down-on-his-luck warehouse worker who loses his job thanks to a single sweep of Croker’s downsizing sword.

How these three come together takes 742 pages to explain, but it has much to do with a hyper-assimilated, disdainful African-American lawyer named Roger White II (and nicknamed Roger Too White) who’s swept into a purported interracial date-rape case involving a local college football star and a society girl. The tense, observant, sharply dressed Too White functions as the conduit for some of the author’s most sardonic observations about racial politics.

Wolfe doesn’t set out to draw any tears with this book, and won’t, though he’ll prompt plenty of shocked laughter with the tour-de-force sequences that stud almost every chapter. A weekend in the country that climaxes with the forced copulation of two horses presented for the pleasure of the invited guests, a loan-default meeting in which the bank officers eviscerate their hapless customer with a sadistic, almost erotic glee, a knuckle-busting showdown in a prison dayroom, a simple typing test that becomes a wrenching personal humiliation, a painting exhibit that Wolfe uses to tweak both art-world pretensions and reactionary anti-art hysteria — truly, there aren’t more than a handful of novelists who even try to cover this much of the American canvas, and fewer still whose brush strokes are so sweeping and so precise.

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