Wolfe's Man in the Full a loose, bloated whine

by David Rothschild

Tom Wolfe has returned and dragged in another blockbuster novel, the gargantuan Man in Full (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 742 pages). Like Bonfire of the Vanities, this is a sprawling social canvas and a huge, weighty tome that could conceivably be used to bludgeon someone to death.

The plot concerns an aging real estate developer, Charlie Croker, spiraling into bankruptcy as various politicians and bankers scheme around him. Croker, the titular man in full, spends most of the novel either railing against or being humiliated by the modern world.

But Croker is the kind of man who spends his millions restoring a southern plantation where the black employees call him "Cap'n," who left his first wife for a 29-year old who insists on naming their daughter "Kingsley," and who enjoys ending a business dinner by taking his guests out back for a pleasant view of horses copulating.

He is not a man in step with the new, international Atlanta, the city "too busy to hate." He spends most of the novel griping inwardly with the notion that he's too manly for the world. His financial tumble sends shock waves through the book, affecting everything from a star black athlete's rape case to the unemployment of a California family man.

Wolfe strains to tie the disparate characters together through a string of coincidences, but plot isn't really the point of a Tom Wolfe novel. Frequently he'll put the entire story on hold for a breathtaking piece of descriptive journalism that he can't quite shoehorn in, like his long description of the community of illegal Korean immigrants.

Or when the mayor of Atlanta suddenly drops all his work to explain, via a limousine tour, Atlanta's class structure from the mansions down to the crack houses. Never mind that the lawyer he's briefing would already know everything the mayor has to say - he isn't the one really being addressed here.

This is less of a novel than a double-decker bus with page numbers. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Wolfe has done his homework and provides dazzling pictures of the insides of a variety of institutions. It's only when he gets down to the people inside that the book falters.

Wolfe later takes us to the Suicidal Freezer Unit of Croker Global Foods in Oakland, California. In there, men walk around a windowless freezer the size of a factory and haul 80-pound cases of beef patties, pinto beans and chicken breasts out to trucks. It's an astonishingly brutal job - the kind that no one in America really wants to admit exists anymore - complete with mustaches turned to icicles, flesh frozen to handlebars and muscles grown "stupendous and grotesque." And Wolfe does the horror justice, to a point. The chapter is a wonderful set piece, but it's only a set piece and the book doesn't let you forget that. It feels impossible that this could be anyone's everyday world, because Wolfe only presents from an outside perspective with the aspects that would scare a reader most front and center.

The chapter introduces Conrad Hensley, a kind, intelligent worker treated hideously by life - or plot contrivances - whichever you prefer. Within a hundred pages, he's been laid off from Croker Global Foods, humiliated by his mother-in-law and his shrewish wife, turned down for a job because manual labor has made his hands too big to type, given a bad parking ticket and jailed for felony assault.

Conrad is the first sympathetic character in Wolfe's fiction - his strength in the face of his Job-like fate is supposed to contrast with the Machiavellian intrigues of the other characters. But Wolfe has gone overboard; Conrad never exists as anything but an authorial conceit, and one can only feel the most generic form of sympathy for him.

As Wolfe shoves the paths of Conrad and Charlie together, a bizarre streak of Randian moralism wafts through the text. In prison, Conrad accidentally comes across a copy of Stoic philosophy, and after learning from Epicitus an acceptance of his own death rather than dishonesty or dishonoring his soul, he miraculously escapes and begins to succeed. The plot mechanics suddenly twist to favor him and he eventually passes on his secrets to Charlie Croker.

Stoicism is an extraordinary philosophy, but Wolfe is giving us Stoicism Lite. After his "good" characters accept that it's better to lose everything than to compromise on their beliefs, none of them actually have to lose anything at all.

This pushes Wolfe to his trite and hasty conclusion, which doesn't come out of literature or journalism, but out of the movies, where the hero can change everything by delivering a long speech standing up for the truth. Wolfe wrecks his own enjoyable pop novel in an attempt to provide an antidote to what he considers wrong in American culture; the characters constantly rant about loud rap music, annoying fashions, even the World Wide Web. This "kids today" tone undercuts the novel's strength, and ultimately gives it the feeling of a bloated whine. It might have been better as a book in half.

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Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 16, March 5, 1999

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