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A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe – Nothing Is Sacrosanct In This Novel

August 5, 2011

Ever since he published his classic 1972 essay Why They Arent Writing the Great American Novel Anymore, Tom Wolfe has made his fictional preferences loud and clear. For New Journalisms poster boy, minimalism is a wash, not to mention a failure of nerve. The real mission of the American writer is to produce fat novels of social observation–the sort of thing Balzac would be dishing up if he had made it into the Viagra era. Wolfes manifesto would have had a hubristic ring if he hadnt actually delivered the goods in 1987 with The Bonfire of the Vanities. Now, more than a decade later, hes back with a second novel. Has the Man in White lived up to his own mission?

On many counts, the answer would have to be yes. Like its predecessor, A Man in Full is a big-canvas work, in which a multitude of characters seems to be ascending or (rapidly) descending the greasy pole of social life: In an era like this one, a character reminds us, the twentieth centurys fin de siècle, position was everything, and it was the hardest thing to get. Wolfe has changed terrain on us, to be sure. Instead of New York, the focus here is Atlanta, Georgia, where the struggle for turf and power is at least slightly patinated with Deep South gentility. The plot revolves around Charlie Croker, an egomaniacal good ol boy with a crumbling real-estate empire on his hands. But Wolfe is no less attentive to a pair of supporting players: a downwardly mobile family man, Conrad Hensley, and Roger White II, an African American attorney at a white-shoe firm. What ultimately causes these subplots to converge–and threatens to ignite a racial firestorm in Atlanta–is the alleged rape of a society deb by Georgia Tech football star Fareek The Cannon Fanon.

Of course, a detailed plot summary would be about as long as your average minimalist novel. Suffice it to say that A Man in Full is packed with the sort of splendid set pieces weve come to expect from Wolfe. A quail hunt on Charlies 29,000-acre plantation, a stuffed-shirt evening at the symphony, a politically loaded press conference–the author assembles these scenes with contagious delight. The book is also very, very funny. The law firms, like upper-crust powerhouse Fogg Nackers Rendering & Lean, are straight out of Dickens, and Wolfe brings even his minor characters, like professional hick Opey McCorkle, to vivid life: In true Opey McCorkle fashion he had turned up for dinner wearing a plaid shirt, a plaid necktie, red felt suspenders, and a big old leather belt that went around his potbelly like something could hitch up a mule with, but for now he had cut off his usual torrent of orotund rhetoric mixed with Baker Countyisms. Readers in search of a kinder, gentler Wolfe may well be disappointed. Retaining the satirists (necessary) superiority to his subject, he tends to lose his edge precisely when hes trying to move us. Still, when it comes to maximalist portraiture of the American scene–and to sheer, sentence-by-sentence amusement–1998 looks to be the year of the Wolfe, indeed. –James Marcus

Men Full Of Themselves
I have found a new favorite author to follow. After initially discovering Tom Wolfes I Am Charlotte Simmons which I thought was fantastic, A Man in Full equals that output. What I like best about Tom Wolfe is his diversity of characters and storylines. He keeps you in suspense with plot development, and I think thats how he justifies 700 plus pages. His research or knowledge (Im not sure which) of subjects like horse stud mating was just as riveting as one of his characters disturbing prison journey. And to top it off I find myself laughing out loud with the many funny social identities sprinkled all throughout the story. Its just enjoyable. I also thought that his story felt sharp and relevant 10 years after it was written. Looking for my next Wolfe novel.

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A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe


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