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A Wolf in Wolfe’s Clothing

Can a heartless novelist ever be great?

Tom Wolfe has always been explicit about what he thinks a novel should be. He published essays expounding these views in 1973, before he ever wrote a novel, then again in 1989, after Bonfire of the Vanities became a huge best seller. American writers should do what they used to do, he argued in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” his 1989 manifesto published in Harper’s. They should depict the mad multiplicity of contemporary life. Wolfe chastised his fellow novelists for abandoning the rich material at their doorstep in exchange for interiority, minutiae, and meta-fiction.

There are flaws in this argument, not the least of them Wolfe’s assumption that only realistic narrative can portray the world persuasively. Twentieth century American writers who have depicted large swaths of society in experimental prose include John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Thomas Pynchon. But I do think Wolfe has a point when he argues that reports of the death of the traditional novel–the plot-driven epic–have been greatly exaggerated. As Bonfire demonstrated, the form retains great vitality and has the potential to reach a vast, underserved audience. But strangely, despite the commercial success of that book, no other writer has responded to the call. There is no School of Wolfe novel. Wolfe remains a flourishing one-man literary movement.

Tom Wolfe’s second novel obeys all the strictures set down in Tom Wolfe’s essays. It is, in fact, strikingly similar to his first novel–in subject matter, structure, and theme. The protagonist of A Man in Full is a white businessman who lives in sumptuous surroundings that include a pretty wife whom he seems to need to be introduced to. The year is 1991 not 1986, the city is Atlanta not New York, and Charlie Croker is a real estate developer not an investment banker. But like Sherman McCoy, Croker is a Master of the Universe who has run into a heap o’ trouble. Having erected a megalomaniac monument to his own ego, a lavish see-through office tower in the distant outskirts, Croker finds that his company’s assets are suddenly less than its liabilities. Vultures circle the hero, who is not inclined to surrender. As in Bonfire, a high society plot and a low society plot chug toward each other. There is the same theme of legal error and even some of the same jokes, such as a reference to the heavy metal band “Pus Casserole.” Wolfe’s style is still Wolfe’s style. Animal Spirits! Pizza Grenade ties! I didn’t tally up exclamation points, but it must be … hundreds. Hundreds! Heh-hegggggggghhhhhhhh!

Wolfe’s fictional craft has improved. His major characters–namely the failing honcho Croker and the gimlet-eyed Mayor Wes Jordan–are more human and less caricature, though the minor ones, including all the women, are still cartoons. Wolfe’s take on what makes the world go around is still highly reductive. Business is about virility, politics about manipulation, women about men’s sexual interest–something men have no control over. But the author’s understanding of psychology has developed a greater degree of nuance. The description of Croker’s withdrawal from his problems into illness and depression, late in the book, is surprisingly tender–for Wolfe.

T here are also scenes in the new book that constitute journalism as good as any that Wolfe as done. The description of work inside a frozen foods warehouse, where wheezing lugs destroy their health hefting 80 pound ice bricks of fish sticks, is worthy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The recounting of a brutal “workout” session, in which bankers try to break a defaulting debtor down psychologically, is brilliantly drawn, as are the scenes set in a dehumanized Oakland prison. In Wolfe’s tour from the suite to the streets, you search in vain for false notes.

Nonetheless, there’s something off about Wolfe the novelist that’s hard to put a finger on. I was borne along very merrily, and in fact wanted to do little else but read the novel until I was finished. But this book didn’t affect me in any lasting way, the way a novel by one of Wolfe’s 19th century heroes can. For some reason, A Man in Full, like Bonfire, remains sophisticated entertainment rather than literature. The problem may be writing that proceeds from a theory. Wolfe uses the novel as a vessel for his social reportage. At moments it seems the wrong container. He has a tendency to try to cram too many tiny figures into an overcrowded canvas. For instance, his excursion to the town outside Atlanta known as “Chambodia” is shoehorned in. In a few pages, Wolfe lets us know that Vietnamese immigrants live packed into tiny apartments and take odious jobs in chicken processing plants that white and black Atlantans both spurn. This is part of the teeming pluralism he wishes to convey, but it feels superfluous.

But the failure goes deeper. A Man in Full follows the example of Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser in its ambition to tell a big story, the kind that covers a lot of geography and captures the flavor of the age. In this Wolfe succeeds ably, infusing his tale with characteristic wit, verve, and narrative propulsion. But the 19th and early 20th century realists shared with each other a quality Wolfe lacks: a social conscience. In a famous essay, George Orwell wrote that what makes Dickens so attractive, despite his failures in characterization and a tendency toward sentimentality, is his decency. Dickens was decent in the way he wrote about people, and he recommended decency as a universal salve.

Wolfe has no such compassion. There are underdogs of a kind in his books–McCoy in Bonfire and the good family man Conrad Hensley in A Man in Full. But what horrifies the reader is that these sympathetic figures should sink into America’s degraded lumpenproletariat. The lower orders in Wolfe’s novels, such as those who populate the jail where Conrad Hensley is imprisoned, are barely above the level of animals. The same goes for the ghetto-bred college football star named Fareek Fanon (in unsubtle hommage to Frantz Fanon, the French intellectual who championed anti-colonial violence in the 1950s). Fanon is a primitive grotesque, a grunting monster.

Dickens and Zola showed their contemporary readers how social conditions led to the debasement of human beings. Wolfe has the causality running in the other direction. In his novels, prisons and ghettos reflect the low nature of their inhabitants. It is beasts that make the jungle, not the other way around. Wolfe does take us to the bombed-out block where Fanon grew up, making such a character plausible. But he gets way more juice out of the brutality such a character embodies than from exploring how he got to be that way. Woolfe brings very little indignation to bear on the society that allows this to happen. Returning from his tour of hell, he tells the rest of us that we should be shocked–not outraged. The mass of suffering humanity is a kind of flea circus, more American farce than American Tragedy.

This coldness and lack of moral vision bring Wolfe much closer to the spirit of Evelyn Waugh than to Dickens. Waugh’s 1930s novels, such as Vile Bodies and Black Mischief, are wicked fun in the strict sense. They are hilarious, but they’re also slightly guilt-inducing, because the author is deeply nasty about his fellow man. Wolfe doesn’t see himself as primarily a satirist. But like Waugh, he makes his fun out of snobbery. Wolfe mocks the obsession with money and status, yet at the same time, his cleverest moments come from indulging in, not just exposing, invidious distinctions and superficial judgments. The reader is led to despise one character because of his bad taste in neckties, but not to hold racism and homophobia against another.

I think Wolfe is right about the potential of this kind of novel, one that takes us through unexplored precincts of our own society while spinning a good yarn. But society awaits a popular novelist who is a writer in full–one with Wolfe’s eye and a heart to go with it.