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An American Ware: Wolfe in Georgia
by Kevin Okeeffe

If you have not read Tom Wolfe's latest effort, A Man In Full, you may be forgiven for presuming that this voluminous novel is worthy of the sort of serious attention usually reserved for acknowledged literary masters. After all, it was nominated for the National Book Award before it was even published. And Wolfe has been featured prominently in a number of publications, including a splashy Time magazine cover heralding him as a novelist of the stature of a Dreiser, Hemingway or Faulkner. Unfortunately for both Wolfe and his readers, size isn't everything, and despite producing more than 700 pages of this, his magnus opus (Wolfe apparently laboured the greater part of eleven years on it), the yield is, sadly, hardly reflective of the effort.

The "Man In Full" in question is one Charlie Croker, a sixty-year-old former Georgia Tech College football star who has become a real estate magnate and one of Atlanta's more prominent white citizens. Charlie possesses all that an ambitious materialist could desire: a 29,000-acre plantation named "Turpmtine" (yes, as several characters ask in the course of the novel, it is spelled with an "m"), maintained solely for the purpose of hunting quail a few months of the year, and staffed by black "retainers" who, in an evocation of the Deep South circa 1850, address him as "Cap'n Charlie"; several executive-style jets; residences in Atlanta; works of art; and a beautiful second wife more than thirty years his junior. Of course, there are problems in this paradise. Charlie has overextended himself with his latest development project, "Croker Concourse", a mammoth, high-rent, commercial complex in downtown Atlanta that sits mostly empty. The novel opens with Charlie down at the plantation where he has invited another of Atlanta's movers and shakers, Inman Armholster, to partake in a good, old-fashioned quail hunt with the intention of enticing him to move into the complex. Among the sprawling entourage is Inman's daughter, Elizabeth, whose character, while pivotal to the secondary plot, is neglected by the author.

This sub-plot involves one Roger White II, a successful, middle-aged, black lawyer known to everyone as "Roger Too White" (an annoying but, as Roger himself admits, accurate nickname). As a partner in one of White Atlanta's more prestigious law firms, Roger has been summoned mysteriously to the home of Georgia Tech's football coach, Buck McNutter.

We first meet Roger stuck in a traffic jam caused by Freatnik, a black variation of the familar Spring Break ritual. At one point, the car in front of Roger's stops and a beautiful, young, black woman gets out, climbs on the car roof, and starts to dance salaciously. Roger's life-long identity dilemma is highlighted during this brief interlude: he simultaneously rejoices at the audacious expression of "Black Pride" amidst "White Atlanta", while silently castigating the participants who are "[w]earing ghetto rags and snorting and squealing like rutboars and turning that beautiful sister into a common Ellis Street hootchy". Of course, what really bothers him about this raucous celebration of youth and sexuality is his own arousal, coupled with the anxiety that he is running late (he takes pride in never being tardy, lest the pejorative "on coloured time" epithet be ascribed to him).

McNutter reveals the reason for summoning Roger. Fareek "The Cannon" Fanon, a black man from the Atlanta slums who is Georgia Tech's star football player, has been accused of sexually assaulting the daughter of a prominent Atlanta figure...Yep, you guessed it, Inman Armholster's offspring, Elizabeth. He hasn't been formally charged yet, but the situation is volatile, and could easily escalate into a full-blown, race-smeared scandal-something all the parties involved wish to avoid. So, the deep-pocketed Georgia Tech alumni, with the blessing of the mayor (an old college bud in the middle of an election battle), devise a pre-emptive strike: they will induce a member of the white community to make a public declaration on Fareek's behalf. Such supportive citizens being in short supply, they turn to Charlie Croker of the crumbling empire with an offer they are sure he cannot refuse. In exchange for his cooperation, the "powers-that-be" will see to it that the local lending institution (PlannersBanc, to whom Charlie is on the hook for more than $500 million) will immediately cease their legal manoeuverings and allow him time to "restructure" his finances. Charlie is faced with a dilemma: to save his empire, he must betray his friendship with Armholster; however, should he lose the empire, his current "friends", Armholster included, would likely skedaddle as well.

While Charlie vacillates between empire and friendship, and Roger and the mayor plot and scheme, we are unexpectedly swept westward, to the outskirts of San Francisco, where "working-class hero" Conrad Hensley slaves away in the freezer unit of a Croker Global Foods' warehouse. Wolfe portrays Conrad as a young, unappreciated martyr who, having been saddled with responsibilities apparently beyond his control (like getting his wife pregnant), is doing what he can to provide for his family, all the while dreaming of a condo in Danville. One day, Conrad risks his own life to save another employee from certain death by a runaway forklift, only to learn soon after that he is slated to be laid off as part of the company's "restructuring". Has it not always been thus for unappreciated martyrs? Then begins the trek to find a new job, during which his car gets towed (not his fault, you understand, for a big, bad Chevy Suburban had pushed his innocent, little Hyundai into a `no-parking' spot); he gets himself jailed for assaulting the tow truck driver; he refuses the offer of probation out of "honour" because "I didn't assault anybody. They assaulted me"; he undergoes a spiritual rebirth after reading the works of a Stoic philosopher; he dramatically abandons his passive stance in prison to methodically break the hand, wrist, and arm of a low-life "alpha-male" who had just raped another prisoner; he eludes vengeance when divine intervention in the form of an earthquake wrecks the jail, allowing Conrad to escape; then, by means of an "underground railway" run by and for illegal immigrants, he makes his way to Atlanta where he finds temporary employment as (are you ready for this?) a caregiver to the elderly. Whew! Naturally, there are more examples of such divine synchronicity, culminating with Conrad going to work for Charlie and imparting the subtler nuances of Stoicism upon this embodiment of Southern xenophobia as the moment of denouement approaches.

Two other characters of note receive but scant attention from the author: Charlie's ex-wife, Martha Croker, who has found herself atop Society's scrapheap after forty years of marriage, discarded, it seems, for no other reason than a "thickening of flesh"; and Ray Peepgass, a mid-forties, middle-management, middle-of-the-pack hack at PlannersBanc, who is embroiled in his own private inferno of adultery, divorce, and paternity suits. Peepgass senses an opportunity to improve his lot by exploiting his position at PlannersBanc, his knowledge of Charlie's considerable difficulties, and Martha's emotional vulnerability. His ensuing machinations as he schemes and manipulates while pursuing financial salvation manage to inject a much-needed boost in the storyline at a time when momentum is clearly lagging, and provide a realistic and interesting alternative to Conrad's simplistic, and unbelievable, goodness.

While this quintet of characters-and there are many others besides-could be deemed sufficient to support a novel of this length, it would require a far greater degree of development and exploration than Wolfe provides here. Instead, the reader must be content with a litany of physical descriptions as opposed to penetrating psychological insights into an individual's motivation.

For example, we are reminded often, too often, of Charlie's imposing physical presence. The author never tires of describing Charlie's "massive neck, his broad shoulders, his prodigious forearms", how proud Charlie was of his "back like a Jersey bull", how his baldness was proof that he had "masculinity to burn-as if there was so much testosterone surging up through his hide it had somehow popped the hair right off the top of his head". The repetitious descriptions of Conrad's powerful upper body (from hauling frozen meat) becomes more than a little irritating, as do continual references to Martha's "thickness", Selena's "boy breasts", Wes Jordan's Yoruba art collection, and Roger's "too whiteness". After reading these descriptions once or twice, the reader, it can be fairly safely assumed, will be conscious of them and their relevance to the storyline, theme or character advancement. This relentless focus on externals rather than on the worlds within may temporarily occupy our attention, but it leaves no more lasting impression than does any other form of rote-knowledge. We do learn a few facts about the characters; however, they fail to come alive to the extent that, not only do we feel they are people we know, but they, in some strange sense, live within us.

This is perhaps the crux of Wolfe's failure-and make no mistake, given the scope of his ambitious undertaking, it can only be qualified as a failure. It is the author's inability (or is it reluctance?) to plumb the breadth and depth of human experience that relegates his work to the realm of popular entertainment rather than art.

Although obviously adept at the craft of narrative description-and there is seemingly no end to his cataloguing of minutiae-too often, as with characterization, we must rely on an assortment of details amounting to little more than rhetorical ornamentation. It is as if the mere presentation of enough of these details might somehow compensate for the more grievous shortcomings with regard to plot, character, and theme. Here's an example:

One wagon was a rolling dog kennel containing cages for three more pairs of pointers to take turns in the ceaseless roaming of the sedge, plus a pair of golden retrievers that had been born in the same litter and were known as Ronald and Roland. A team of La Mancha mules, adorned in brass-knobbed yokes and studded harnessing, pulled the wagon, and two of Charlie's dog handlers, both of them black, attired in thornproof yellow overalls, drove them. The other was the buckboard, an ancient wooden thing rebuilt with shock absorbers and pneumatic tires and upholstered with rich tan leather, like a Mercedes-Benz's. Two more of Charlie's black employees, wearing the yellow overalls, drove the La Manchas that pulled the buckboard and served food and drink from an Igloo cooler built into the back.

You would think, perhaps, that the names of the dogs and the fact that the La Mancha mules were "adorned in brass-knobbed yokes and studded harnessing" were somehow crucial to the story's development, which of course they are not. And while it is perfectly acceptable to provide a reader with sufficient details to form a mental picture of the situation, the author is inclined to overdo it, telling us more than we need-or want-to know.

Lest the reader be left with the impression that A Man In Full is an unenjoyable reading experience, let me assure you that this is not the case. Wolfe is a competent writer possessing an engaging, if tad pedantic, vocabulary, a credible talent for dialogue, and an appreciative ear for dialectal distinctions. Many of his descriptive passages are not merely informative, but convey a sensual appreciation of the wonder and beauty of our natural surroundings. However, these skills are not in themselves sufficient to overcome the novel's shortcomings. When finished, the reader experiences a curious feeling of emptiness: a clutter of facts drift around the mind, but little of substantial import.

Wolfe may be admired for attempting to achieve the degree of artistry and social revelation that one finds exemplified in the works of Conrad, Hemingway or Faulkner (these being the sorts of figures to whom the author has compared himself), and you will enjoy the read; but do not let yourself get conned by the public relations campaign into believing that A Man In Full is anything more than popular entertainment. 

Kevin O'Keeffe is a Vancouver writer and musician.


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