Which, I wonder, is the more important measure of a book: What you think of it while you’re reading it, or what you think when you’re done? Having finished Tom Wolfe’s extraordinary novel at midnight last night, I am struck most of all by the chasm that separates my two reactions.
For this opening salvo, I’ll stick mostly with the first of my reactions: A Man in Full is, as pretty much every critic in the country has rushed to say, an amazing read. Pounding one’s way through the book–and there’s no other way to read it–is a rare pleasure. Wolfe is the most sheerly profligate writer at work today: with his inventions, his research, his dialogue, his wit. While you can argue (and I probably will) over whether the structure of this book works in the end, you can’t help loving his generosity of mind.
Most readers of this correspondence will probably have read some reviews and absorbed the plot basics, but just for the record: A Man in Full is set mostly in Atlanta, and tells the stories of two men at the top and the bottom of the social pecking order. Charlie Croker is a self-made real estate baron who suddenly faces the loss of everything he’s built–the global food company, the see-through office tower he named after himself, the vast plantation (Turpmtime) where he shoots quail and bashes fairies with his fellow barons; his bank is calling in his loans. Conrad Hensley is a worker bee in one of Croker’s companies, where he has a hideous job hogging 80-pound crates of frozen food in an enormous refrigerated warehouse. Conrad is axed when Croker desperately lays of 15 percent of his work force, and the two men’s paths gradually converge.
Another strand of the narrative concerns Roger White II, an Anglophilic black Atlanta lawyer who has been known, since his Morehouse days, as Roger Too White. He has been hired to try to stave off charges against a Georgia Tech football star named Fareek “The Cannon” Fanon, who may or may not have raped the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most powerful businessmen. Roger colludes with Atlanta’s black mayor, Wesley Dobbs Jordan, to enlist Croker’s help in defusing the situation, offering to call off Croker’s creditors if he will make a public show of support for Roger’s deeply unlikable client. This is the plot line that allows Wolfe to burrow into Atlanta’s power structure, showing the uneasy alliance between the white business leaders and the black politicos, and the subtle shadings of status among Atlanta’s blacks. (The mayor, by the way, is one of the best characters in the book–a better one, I think, than Roger himself. Jordan armors himself in layers of self-conscious irony, but plays the race game with the best of them. As Election Day nears, Roger notices more and more Yoruban art gracing the mayor’s walls, and then spends an entire meeting trying to figure out why his old fraternity brother looks slightly different. He finally figures out that Jordan is actually blacker than usual, and learns that the mayor has literally been working on his suntan.)
The book proceeds by elaborate set pieces: A day at Conrad’s back-breaking job. The brutal “work-out session” at which the bankers elaborately humiliate Charlie Croker (“the shithead,” as they call their big debtors). Charlie hosting a dinner at Turpmtine, then treating his guests to a lovingly-detailed session of horse-mating. Roger Too White’s initial meeting with Fanon, a chapter structured to show every detail of Roger’s ambivalence about being the brother in the bespoke suit.
As in the past, Wolfe’s big subjects are money and race; but I think A Man in Full has been oversold as a book about race. Wolfe deserves the usual credit for wading confidently into the minds and voices of his black characters, and he’s full of a dour humor about the fragile peace of a city that likes to say it’s “too busy to hate.” But what really moves every human being in this book is money–having it, losing it, spending it, chasing it, lacking it.
And here is where Wolfe’s vaunted social realism reaches its peak. He seems to know everything about how rich people live: how they decorate, and dress, and pay their servants, and assuage their guilt over those same servants. What money can do for a garden. The difference between living in a neighborhood of towering pines (nice) and a neighborhood of hardwood trees (infinitely nicer–once the difference is pointed out to Roger Too White, he can never feel quite the same way when he looks out his window). He writes about the lack of money with an equal precision, limning poor idealistic Conrad’s hopeless hopes of buying a little condo for his wife and two kids. My favorite detail: after chapters in which we’ve walked across the loamy carpets of the Atlanta rich, Wolfe’s describes the rug in Conrad’s pathetic rental, “The rug beneath him, from Pier One Imports, was made of sisal, and left waffle designs on the children’s feet when they walked across it barefoot.” No one but Wolfe could have earned the small explosion of sympathy the reader feels for Conrad in that moment.
There’s so much meat here. Did I mention how funny the book is? How remarkable it is that Wolfe manages to sell the realism of a novel that is in fact so broadly satiric? (For starters, consider the names of the law firms: There’s Fogg, Nackers, Rendering & Lean. There’s Clockett, Paddet, Skynnham & Glote. There’s Tripp, Snayer & Billings. There’s Roger’s own firm, Wringer, Fleasom & Tick. And what kind of smile did Wolfe have on his face when he decided to name the man who supervises Croker’s stud farm “Johnny Groyner”?)
But I’ve probably said enough for an opener. Eventually I want to hear (among other things) what you think of the critics’ contention that Wolfe has written a more “moral” novel this time out than The Bonfire of the Vanities. What do you want to talk about?