A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus & Giroux
Tom Wolfe, one of our ablest chroniclers, sets his sights down our way on his latest, A Man in Full . If you read Bonfire of the Vanities , you know the basic structure — introduce about a zillion characters, make most of them pure wipe-off-your-shoe worthless, and let the main character be the city the book is set in. Which, in this case, is my hometown of Atlanta. Wolfe has a great sense of place — he captures the transient mood of the population (there’s not a lot of “native” Atlanta folks these days), the movie-set sham of our downtown. When he says it closes up at 6, he’s right. Once the corporate barons whisk themselves up to North Fulton and their country-club estates, they leave empty buildings and blinking traffic lights and not much else. It’s this sort of man, a true Southern beast, that Wolfe has created in Charlie Croker. A real estate monarch whose kingdom has turned to dross, Croker floats on the legend he created playing football in college and on his “man’s man” image of himself. By the time the book ends and he gets his comeuppance, you cheer, because he’s such an insufferable blow-hard that he deserves to get spanked. Overextended at the bank, he becomes, in the parlance of high-level finance, a “shithead.” His torture at the hands of the bank officials is great fun.
If this book doesn’t grab you the way Bonfire did, maybe it’s because Atlanta ain’t New York – never will be, Olympics or not. It’s a nice Southern town that someone poured too much money into. Atlanta is a large, sprawling city – the metro area is the largest free calling area in the world, and because of this, you don’t get the mixing of peoples you do in the Big Apple. We have pockets of various cultures — Wolfe captures one of them, “Chambodia,” to a tee. But if you don’t go to that part of town, you’d never know it existed, unlike New York or Chicago, where each block holds a different United Nations embassy.
City officials here in Atlanta have raised a stink about the books depiction of race and violence in our fair city — somehow, they didn’t think people knew that “The City Too Busy To Hate” was also the most violent city, per captia, in America. Or that it’s run by a bunch of corrupt back-room dealers, just like other big cities. But unlike some other Gothams, we also have your basic banjo-playing, Deliverance -extra goons, like the nutball that bombed Centennial Park during the Olympic games. Charlie Croker is such a man – more successful, to be sure, not prone to paranoid violence like a bomber, but a dirt under the fingernails redneck, to be sure. His greatest pleasure in the book is not the erecting of large, empty buildings. It’s the moments of pure Southern testosterone — quail hunting, snake-handling, you know, “bubba stuff,” that really gets his heart a pumpin’. His begrudging acceptance of his fading power is the energy that drives the book, and the way this twitching and thrashing of impotence affects the people in his world is riveting to read.
Boosters of Atlanta may have missed the point when they slammed Wolfe’s portrayal. In showing the “money talks, everything else walks” mentality of the city, Wolfe has perhaps created a 700+ page ad for the town. If you want to make money, and not give a damn about the people or the world around you, Atlanta is waiting for you. Wolfe got His – the book is flying out of bookstores. So come on down and get yours.