Tom Wolfe releases ''A Man in Full'' -- The author overcomes setbacks, depression, and health issues with his newest novel

A Man in Full

Somewhere in the back of Tom Wolfe’s closet — amid his custom-tailored cream-colored suits, his handsewn two-tone calfskin shoes, his racks of imported crepe de chine neckties — hangs a single pair of Levi’s jeans. He has never worn these pants in public — they’re still as inky blue as the day he purchased them, during a trip to Texas nearly 25 years ago — but they may just be the most important trousers he’s ever owned.

”The only time I wear them,” the author says, daintily sipping coffee in his lavishly furnished 12-room Upper East Side apartment, ”is when I must finish what I’m writing. I wear them when I’m on a deadline because I know I’ll never leave home with them on.”

It’s safe to say that Wolfe wore a lot of denim this past year. Finishing A Man in Full, the most hotly anticipated novel of his career — possibly the most anticipated novel by any author this decade — has been a frantic, deadline-defying race that very nearly cost the 68-year-old literary superstar his life. After 11 years of false starts, wrong plot turns, abandoned characters, massive revisions, and total rethinks — not to mention a heart attack and a quintuple-bypass operation — Wolfe found himself scrambling to complete the book up to the very last minute, his publishers all but tearing pages from his typewriter as he wrote.

”When anyone asked me, I tried to make out like I was just correcting a few proofs,” he says, his gentle Virginia lilt almost a whisper. ”But the fact is, I did a lot of the writing this summer. I was making changes as late as September. I put my publishers through hell.”

And now here it is: Wolfe’s 742-page anatomy of America in the 1990s (83 pages longer than his last decade-defining best-seller, 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities), a vast panorama stretching from the belly of the Deep South to the industrial armpits of California, from the boardrooms of the fat and wealthy to the prison cells of the lost and luckless. Like Bonfire, it’s packed with vivid detail (including more than you ever needed to know about how horses have sex), larger-than-life characters with giddily eccentric names (Raymond Peepgass, Jack Shellnutt, You Gene Jones), and a twisting, page-turning plotline that ultimately caroms into a fiery pileup of racial politics and high finance.

In other words, it’s exactly the sort of sprawling, overstuffed, 19th-century-style novel almost nobody else is writing these days — and that Wolfe has been loudly championing for years. ”Here we are in this baroque nation with all this fabulous material and people are writing psychological novels?” he says. ”Good Lord!”

This bravado — My Balzacs are bigger than yours! — hasn’t always endeared him to other authors (John Updike, for one, recently dismissed A Man in Full as ”entertainment, not literature”), but then, Wolfe has never been one to travel in packs. As a writer for Esquire and New York magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, he broke all the rules of conventional journalism (and punctuation) with his freewheeling stories about stock car races and Black Panther dinner parties that seemed to loop off the page in high-wire acts of verbal acrobatics. The opening paragraph of one classic Wolfe piece on Las Vegas, for instance, consisted almost entirely of the word hernia repeated 57 times. (Well, it was the ’60s.)

A Man in Full
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