The Book Club

Et Tu, Brute?

Dear Marjorie,

What is so implausible about a person whose life is in ruins experiencing an epiphany and resolving to follow a more spiritual path? It happened to Charlie Colson. Why can’t it happen to Charlie Croker? At the point in the narrative where Croker is introduced to the Stoic philosophy, he is depressed, contemplating suicide, and left with two options that both spell certain ruin, at least in his own mind. He can surrender his real estate holdings and his beloved Turpmtine plantation to PlannersBanc. Or he can surrender to Fareek Fanon, the pampered and contemptuous black college quarterback accused of date-raping a white debutante.  (One of the nice ways Wolfe makes it complicated in the end is by introducing evidence very late in the narrative that Fareek may be innocent. Another is the way Wolfe lets it drop that Croker himself essentially raped his first wife on their first date. But the reader understands that neither of these facts carries much weight with Croker.) The man has no place to go! And while yes, sure, there’s a satirical undercurrent to the notion of Charlie becoming an evangelist (with his own program on Fox TV!), I think we’re mostly supposed to take the conversion at face value, inasmuch as we’re supposed to take any of Wolfe’s characters at face value.

And here we come to the first hurdle in describing the Wolfe Aesthetic: Getting past the undeniable fact that his characters are a bit cartoonish. Yes, I grant you, Wolfe is not an explorer of human ambiguity. Not only is he not Henry James, he really isn’t the equal of most good contemporary novelists when it comes to creating subtly drawn characters.  But: 1) The characters in A Man in Full do represent a quantum leap forward in complexity and subtlety compared to the characters in Bonfire. I can’t remember a thing about Sherman McCoy, can you? I only remember his marvelously drawn predicament. And 2) Subtle shadings of character just aren’t what you read Wolfe for. You read Wolfe for the marvelously drawn predicaments, which allow him to say interesting and often very amusing things about the world we live in. I’ll go further. You don’t read Wolfe for ambiguity of any kind. But let’s be honest: Aren’t there other great novelists of whom we can say the same thing? Where’s the ambiguity in Dickens? Isn’t Wackford Squeers a pretty cartoonish fellow too? Or Sidney Carton? Or David Copperfield, for that matter?

Within this context, Wolfe’s ending his narrative with Croker’s uplifting discovery that possessions aren’t what life is about works quite well, I think. It’s believable, as far as anything in the novel is believable; more important, it redeems the whole book, whose pitilessness might otherwise seem too much (as Bonfire’s did at the end; I don’t remember the ending well, but recall it seemed nasty and vaguely racist and abrupt). In that sense it reminds me of the ending of Catch-22, another pitiless work with somewhat cartoonish characters that ends on an exhilaratingly hopeful note as Yossarian, dodging the knife of Nately’s Whore, runs off and deserts the U.S. Army Air Corps.

I completely agree that Wolfe has brought much needless grief on his own head by boasting that only he, Tom Wolfe, can write realistic narrative fiction. Another person who’s done quite well with the form recently is Philip Roth, whose American Pastoral and I Married a Communist both represent a welcome return to the social realism of his early work. (I wonder whether Wolfe has read my favorite Roth book, Letting Go, and, if so, what he thought of it.) American Pastoral has some great reportage about the glove making industry in Newark, which is used to symbolize the decline of civility, which works better than it sounds. I Married a Communist evokes its 1950s McCarthyite milieu with great subtlety, and also contains some finely wrought passages about mining and even taxidermy. Roth’s capacity to draw complex characters is, on the evidence of these two novels alone, much greater than Wolfe’s. On the other hand, Roth hasn’t tackled a plot line as satisfyingly elaborate as that of A Man in Full since he wrote Letting Go.

But now let’s move on to a more mundane topic: When does this novel take place? Reviews have said the early 1990s, and it’s true that the economic climate depicted would appear to be that of the 1991 recession, when the savings and loan crisis had bankers and real estate moguls at war. But there’s also a major plot device involving an Internet gossip column, and as a frequent contributor to an internet gossip column myself I can assure you the form wasn’t even possible before the web was invented in the mid-1990s, and didn’t have much ability to influence the public at large until about a year ago. During which time, of course, the economy and the real estate market were doing extremely well.

I think Wolfe is fudging his time frame on purpose, because he wants A Man in Full to have the same “ripped from the headlines” feel as Bonfire, which appeared about a minute and a half before the 1987 stock market crash. If I’m right, he’s rooting for the current global economic crisis to bring about a recession in the U.S. that will crater the Atlanta real-estate market but make A Man in Full another decade-defining work. But if that doesn’t happen, he can always say he’s written a historical novel about the S&L crisis, and hope nobody else notices that he got the Internet stuff slightly wrong.

This all may seem like nitpicking, but the Wolfe Aesthetic prizes immediacy and up-to-the-minuteness much more than, say, the Henry James aesthetic does. Please advise.

This just in,