The Book Club

Manly, Yes, But I Like It

Dear Marjorie,

“You win, but who cares, anyway” is my rough translation of how you ended your last dispatch. Well, if that isn’t just like a girl. On to Wolfe as explicator of Manhood.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I like this aspect of A Man in Full, though I won’t deny it has its ridiculous side. You know, all those bulging trapezius muscles and blinding realizations that hit Wolfe’s men slam-bang in the solar plexus (another term that I needed you to explain to me, even though it’s been a mainstay of Wolfe’s literary vocabulary for four decades; what can I say, I never took Latin or went to med school).

For all that, Wolfe writes compellingly about the various forms “masculine” behavior can take.

There’s physical heroism, about which Wolfe has been writing at least as far back as “The Last American Hero,” his wonderful piece about the stock car racer Junior Johnson, in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Come to think of it, Ken Kesey was portrayed as a rather manly charismatic daredevil in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, though in that case the physical heroism was an ability not to freak out while taking psychedelic drugs. (Wolfe, incidentally, says in today’s Boston Globe that he’s afraid to reread the Kesey book because “I suspect there’s something juvenile about it”; as someone who picked it up for the very first time a few weeks ago, I can attest that fear is well-placed. It’s the only Wolfe book that’s aged badly.) Physical heroism is, of course, pretty much the whole point of The Right Stuff, especially the dazzling passages about Chuck Yeager.

The celebration of physical heroism in A Man in Full isn’t quite as effective as it is in Wolfe’s earlier books. Consider the scene where, after being humiliated by a pack of Atlanta bankers for not keeping up with his loan payments, Croker snatches up an enormous rattlesnake while his plantation hands quaver and tosses it into a terrarium. The scene is enthralling, but also a little silly. The scene where Conrad Hensley saves a fellow Croker Foods worker’s life is better, but still not great.

I do like another scene, though, where Conrad frightens an extortionist out of an elderly couple’s house by affecting jailhouse talk. He is following the advice of his former prison cellmate, a Samoan named Five-O: “Use da mouth.” In A Man in Full, the most compelling scenes depicting manly conflict are those where people “use da mouth.” What’s great about these scenes is that they’re scary and funny and exhilarating all at the same time. The best example is the chapter called “The Saddlebags,” which I think is the best thing in the novel and one of the very best prose passages Wolfe has ever written. (Jann Wenner must think so too, because he excerpted it in Rolling Stone.) The chapter presents Croker’s humiliation at the Atlanta bank at the hands of Harry Zale, a sadistic “workout artiste” whose job it is to bring high-flying debtors down to earth. Regardless of what anyone may think of A Man in Full, I don’t think it can be disputed that “The Saddlebags” is a small masterpiece of fiction, or business journalism, or something. Here’s a bit of it:

“It was the central nervous system that finally informed the tycoons that they had descended to the status of shithead at PlannersBanc. Shithead was the actual term used at the bank and throughout the industry. Bank officers said ‘shithead’ in the same matter-of-fact way they said ‘mortgagee,’ ‘co-signer,’ or ‘debtor,’ which was the polite form of ‘shithead,’ since no borrower was referred to as a debtor until he defaulted …When people at the bank now referred to Croker as a shithead, they truly meant it. They truly felt it. His botching things was malfeasance. It made them look so goddamned bad!”

I realize that I’ve stopped analyzing completely and am now merely enthusing. But c’mon, is “The Saddlebags” great, or what? I want to hear more about your reaction to this chapter.