This is going to be fun. A Man in Full may not be Henry James, as John Updike sagely pointed out inlast week’s New Yorker, but who needs two Henry Jameses? Literature is big enough toaccommodate a Henry James aesthetic and a Tom Wolfe aesthetic.
Defining precisely what the Tom Wolfe aesthetic is will be part of our task, along with probing suchImportant Questions as: 1) Why do journalists (like you and me) adore Wolfe beyond reason while serious littérateurs patronize him? 2) Should we mourn the fact that Wolfe doesn’t write nonfictionanymore? (And will his fiction ever surpass his twin masterpieces, The Right Stuff and RadicalChic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers?) 3) What does the New York Times’s Michiku Kakutani, who attacked the book’s didactic ending, have against Epictetus specifically, and a little moral uplift generally? 4) What is Wolfe’s weird homophobia–glancingly in evidence here, galloping out of control in his recent audio novella Ambush at Fort Bragg–all about? 5) Why is a novel that is largely about what it means to be a man such an anomaly in our culture? 6) What is a trapezius muscle, anyway, and is mine big enough? 7) I’m sure we’ll think of some others as we go along.
I like your idea that this novel is more about money than about race (I’m going to leave the he-man stufffor later). You’re dead right. I think people are focusing on the racial themes because they’re more nuanced here than they were in The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was really more about race than is A Man in Full. The new book lets us see the world through the eyes of both white folks and black folks, whereas Bonfire pretty much gave you the world according to white folks. Roger Too White, whose development can be seen one way as that of a sympathetic character who evolves into a villain, can be seen another way as a poor muddled soul who grows into a stronger and more fully realized man. (Whoops, the he-man stuff is creeping in. But again, let’s save that for later.) Mayor Wes Jordan, the book’s other major black character, is cynical and manipulative, but only when pushed to the wall by a tight election race; and, as you say, the irony with which he plays the race game is marvelously rendered. Jordan is a kind of perverse hero in the book; Tom Wolfe the journalist can’t help admiring people who see the world whole.
But now I’ve undercut my point by going on and on about race. Race is the background music, but money is really what’s on everybody’s mind in this book. The Pier One rug that leaves waffle designs on the feet of Conrad Hensley’s children is priceless. And the business about the hierarchy of trees. But you didn’t mention the book’s controversial ending, in which real estate mogul Charlie Croker embraces the antimaterialist teachings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. I loved the audacity of this, the unembarrassed and unfashionable idealism. I think it’s quite necessary to counterbalance the book’s satirical heartlessness, which Jacob Weisberg deplores this week in his Slate column. But Kakutani hated the Epictetus business, and Weisberg overlooked it. What do you think?