A Man In Full
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus & Giroux
Tom Wolfe and his books are given great deference because he acts the way we want a novelist to act. Articulate and media savvy, Wolfe gives good sound bytes wherever he goes. Clad in trademark white suit and borsalino hat, he’s the VH1 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, belittling the rich as he gets richer and standing in our stead wherever people uncork beaujolais nouveau and are rich together. With each passing book, and each passing year that moves him further away from his “New Journalism” peak in the 1960s, this act is wearing thinner and thinner.
A landscape muralist of the first order, Wolfe is subpar at portraiture. He can scan sociological battlefields and deftly suggest the cacophony at work there. Unfortunately, he is less successful at focusing on the story of one particular soldier. At that point, his characters seem to be made less of flesh than of parchment. Their backgrounds read like composite files, and their actions seem to thrust out all too logically from the empty and sterile chamber where their center should be. You can almost hear the author wondering aloud how far into idiocy he can plausibly push a particular character while remaining consistent with the history he’s assembled for that individual.
Nowhere is this more true than in A Man in Full , Wolfe’s recent tome on race relations in the millennial south. Set in Atlanta, A Man sets up the meeting of a Zeus-worshipping escaped convict with a near-bankrupt real estate developer. Colliding with the actions of these caricatures are the struggles of a black athlete charged with raping a white college girl, the black civil lawyer who represents him, and the black mayor of Atlanta who must defuse the situation in an election year.
The action in A Man clips along successfully enough, and the physical details of the mayoral offices and country clubs forming the sets for this melodrama, are described in vivid detail. Wolfe is the technical master of terrain, fashion, architecture, and how they are immortalized in print. The people in the book, however, seem a little less real, as if they’ve been caught in a dreamlike movie where the backdrops are real and the actors are mannequins.
Wolfe creates no heroes, or at least he hasn’t since Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff , and Wolfe only wrote about him. God created him. In both Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full , Wolfe pursues the annoying habit of punishing all his characters equally. When every character is belittled, the reader doesn’t know with whom to side.
Wolfe has however, always managed to come up with works which seem immediately and electrically connected to the time of their creation. Bonfire was a lot more interesting and relevant in the Eighties. Similarly, The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had a special connection to their place and time. Only A Man in Full fails to grasp at least one of the hot wires powering its age.
For this reason, perhaps, A Man already seems to have fallen from the public fancy. Released in hardback to much pre-Christmas hoopla last fall, A Man has yet to turn the corner and become the cultural front-runner his previous works have become. At this point in the hype cycle ten years ago, Sherman McCoy and Bonfire were still a struck match compared with the blaze they would eventually become. There are those who attribute this to Wolfe’s age and the fact that he may be losing the special powers of observation he’s always counted on to view the world. I think it’s just that the public is getting sick of white suits.