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, neither of which will be his for very long unless he can offload nearly a billion dollars of debt. Raymond Peepgass (a man as doomed to plaintive inconsequence as his name suggests) 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 (that’s just the first banana peel in a long, long tumble) 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 — whose name looks just a bit like Tom Wolfe in a novel in which every name is furbished with curlicues of significance — functions as the conduit for some of the author’s most sardonic observations about racial politics.
Too White is also the closest thing to a sympathetic African-American character that A Man in Full offers, and the competition for that title — a glad-handing mayor, some prisoners, and an arrogant accused rapist — is so slim that Wolfe, who has an occasionally troubling appetite for caricature, would be on very thin ice were he not such an equal-opportunity lacerator. Readers predisposed to do so may object to the chilly ferocity of his satire, but they should note that Wolfe reserves his most direct brutalization for conservatives. His surgical ability to extract and examine the self-delusions and monstrous vanities of greedy professional white men becomes all the more excoriating for being so compassionately imagined. And when he turns his scalpel on Croker, an aging, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, increasingly addled titan who is quite literally rotting from the inside out as his worldly power ebbs, the result is both monstrous and pathetic. You almost feel sorry for him.
Almost. 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.
Wolfe’s occasional failures of imagination — particularly an overwrought device involving the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that threatens to turn the novel’s ending into a damp firecracker — and his literary tics (what’s with his weird anatomical obsession with human musculature?) will alienate some readers. Others will complain that A Man in Full isn’t quite the decade-defining novel that it wants to be, a near-impossible goal in an instant-spin, movie- and TV-driven culture that no longer waits patiently for novelists (even journalists-turned- novelists) to make sense out of an era. But let’s beg Hollywood right now to spare us the terrible film that this juicily unadaptable tome will almost inevitably become. Perhaps we can settle, instead, for what Wolfe has given us — not just a great big book but a big, great one. A