I don’t think there is any “new and interesting ground” to be worked on the ancient questions about manhood, but I like Wolfe for working them all the same. And yeah, I do think it’s largely unexplored territory for fiction these days. (I’ll grant you the caveat that we get a fair bit in the movies and the theater from David Mamet and Martin Scorsese, and in popular music from Bruce Springsteen, whose wonderful new CD boxed set I’ve been playing pretty much nonstop during the past 24 hours.)
Why does fiction so rarely tackle Manly Themes? Mainly because fiction has become largely a female art form during the past couple of decades. There are young male writers of fiction, of course, but not nearly as many as there are young female writers. The novel has become a vehicle used most often to explore life from a female, usually domestic, point of view. (And no, I don’t necessarily regard the two as one and the same.) I’m not dumping on this phenomenon. I like Anne Tyler. Still, the fact remains that with a few notable exceptions (Martin Amis is one), there aren’t many young men using fiction to explore the Guy Experience, particularly when compared to fiction’s previous generation (Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike, et al.; even Robert Stone is getting up there in years). I suppose they’ve all gone off to write screenplays, or nonfiction–fat biographies of Winston Churchill that land with a thud on Father’s Day.
Wolfe, of course, is a late-blooming member of the Mailer-Roth generation, and his growly maleness is definitely part of what appeals to me. (Though it’s always a surprise to see it come out of a skinny guy who wears spats.) You mentioned Peepgass, whose testosterone surge is played for laughs. But there’s also the sequence where Conrad Hensley is negotiating the brutal subcultures of the Santa Rita jail. This is the most solemn and scary portion of the book, where maleness is pure, toxic aggression. It’s where Hensley learns to “use da mouth” to avoid being raped and otherwise humiliated by the leader of the Nordic Bund, a terrifying neo-Nazi gang.
It’s also where Wolfe lets slip his own weird little red dog of homophobia. Rather heavy-handedly, Wolfe juxtaposes the jail sequence with an Atlanta society ball to celebrate a museum exhibition exalting an artist whose paintings are homoerotic. Croker thinks it’s all quite ridiculous, and one gets a strong whiff that Wolfe does, too. Earlier in the book, he shows Croker and some cronies yukking it up about gays and AIDS in a way that shocks his dinner guests; although the point is social comedy, to show tone-deaf Charlie oafishly alienating the business elite as his troubles mount, there’s a definite undercurrent of aw, cain’t a guy have fun no more?
I don’t mean to be too censorious here; the homophobia in A Man in Full is a discordant and troubling note, but a decidedly minor one. But it did bring back memories of Ambush at Fort Bragg, which starts off quite brilliantly as a satire of “ambush” TV journalism but goes completely off the rails when it halfway endorses the views of a homophobic soldier who’s killed a homosexual fellow soldier with the unsubtle name of Randy Valentine. The murderer, Virgil Ziggefoos, ends a peroration about the foolishness of putting gays in fighting units by saying: “You go ‘sem’natin’ stuff abaout the gay lafstyle you don’ even believe yer ownsef, and don’ nobuddy ailse believe it neither, and you git everbuddy worked up, and fellers ‘at jes natch’ly resent hom’seckshuls, fellers ‘at know dayum wale it ain’t gon’ work to put ‘em in a fattin’ unit, they git riled to whirr they do thangs they won’t lackly to do if you people’d jes tol’ the plain truth.” (Ambush was released as an audio book, but it was also published in Rolling Stone, where I got this.) Wolfe maintains some distance from Ziggefoos in Ambush, but only a little. I remember, sitting by the tape player in our kitchen, when we got to that scene on the audiotape. We looked at each other and wondered what that was all about. In light of A Man in Full (from which, I gather, Ambush was carved as an extraneous subplot), do you have any more thoughts about Wolfe and gays?