on June 9, 2004
You might, as you start reading Man in Full, think that it's going to be another bonfire of similar vanities. You might, but you would be wrong. I loved Bonfire of the Vanities, but this book has more heart; it's even better.
The book is mostly set in Atlanta, and Wolfe makes the case that Atlanta has a unique racial situation. Race relations and racial tensions form a major theme in the novel. Wolfe views race from many angles, including views from Atlanta's black elite, wealthy conservative and liberal southern white, and the inside of a California prison.
The characters and characterizations are marvelous. This was one of the strengths of Bonfires and it's a strength of this book too. I don't think Wolfe writes women as well as he writes men, but the men of several different walks of life are as fully fleshed as anything I've ever read. Another fascinating thing about the book is the inside knowledge Wolfe shares. The insider's view of an Atlanta mayoral campaign was truly eye-opening, as was the inside view of a prison.
The book is hard to classify, but the view is often satirical (like Bonfire), and makes fun of the pride, vanity, lusts, and fears of the elites (like Bonfire). However, there is more heart. Some of the heart shows up in Wolfe's compassion for divorced 50-something wives who have been discarded by their social climbing husbands. In Bonfire, the wives, called "X-rays" were subject to the same ridicule as their husbands; not so in this book. Wolfe also shows some compassion for the poor souls in prison, as he illuminates the brutal social structure in his california jail. It's never mawkish; it never plays for sympathy or tears, but the simple facts of prison life are a horror.
Finally, Wolfe's foray into Stoic philosophy is beautifully and brilliantly done. When was the last time you read a novel where a philosophy book formed a major plot element? I think this book will continue to be read long after we've forgotten about Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele and most of the rest of the current crop of best-selling authors.
on November 25, 2000
I'm sure that by now everyone is aware of the basic story of A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe's eleven-years-in-the-making, heart-surgery and-depression-interrupted, follow up to his great novel of the 80's, Bonfire of the Vanities. Charlie Croker is a 60 year old, good old boy, developer in Atlanta. A former star Georgia Tech halfback, his empire includes a game ranch, a frozen foods business and a white elephant of an office building that is bleeding him dry. Judging his success purely by the accouterments, he appears to be doing okay, with a hottie trophy wife, a Gulf Stream 5, palatial houses, etc. But his bankers smell blood in the water, one of them (Raymond Peepgass) has even secretly put together a syndicate to take over the office building at cut rate, and Charlie has to lay off some workers at the food business, including young Conrad Hensley, just to free up cash and buy some time. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech's new star halfback, Fareek Fanon, is being accused of raping the daughter of one of Charlie's wealthy society cronies. Up and coming black attorney Roger White II (Roger Too White) has been called in to handle the defense and he offers Charlie a deal: speak out in support of Fareek at a press conference orchestrated by the mayor, and they'll get the bank to back off. As Charlie wrestles with this decision, Conrad works his way across the country, converting to Stoicism in the process. Their paths all meet when Conrad is assigned to Charlie as a physical therapist after knee surgery and shares the tenets of Stoicism with him. With the press conference looming Charlie must decide whether to go along with Roger's plan, by praising Fareek, and save his empire and position in society or be true to himself, at the risk of losing everything and possibly causing race riots in Atlanta, and tell the truth, that Fareek, like many athletes, is shallow, self-centered, pampered and arrogant.
Of course, interspersed with this basic narrative, Wolfe provides the myriad details, learned expositions, social observations and zeitgeist probings for which he is justly famous. These elements of the novel, if not quite up to the level of his best work (Radical Chic, Bauhaus to Our House, The Right Stuff and Bonfire), are still very funny, extremely insightful and wildly ambitious. He really just blows the doors off of most other novelists, simply by being willing to attempt such a massive portrait of America.
If you just take that set up, it looks like this is merely an updating of Bonfire--rich guy's world collapsing, racial tension, etc.. But the real risk taking, the nearly masochistic reach that Wolfe makes here, is in his portrayal of Conrad Hensley. For over thirty years, Wolfe has been a master of the social satire. He has basically made a career out of pricking the gonfalon bubbles of America's most ostentatious and self-important cultural elites. But once in a great while one of his subjects has managed to pierce the ironic veil and make him stumble. The two who spring to mind most readily are the race car driver Junior Johnson (read his profile "The Last American Hero") and Chuck Yeager (read Orrin's review of The Right Stuff). Both of these men penetrated Wolfe's ironic detachment and he ended up portraying them as genuine unalloyed American heroes. Now it's perfectly understandable that this point was lost in his pretty substantial corpus of work, but with Conrad it becomes clear what was going on all along; they are all Men in Full.
When Conrad is in prison and has just discovered the teachings of Epictetus and the other Stoics, he finds himself in a situation that clearly portends his own rape and asks:
What would Epictetus have done with this bunch? What could he have done? How could you apply his lessons two thousand years later, in this grimy gray pod, this pigsty full of beasts who grunted about motherf***in' this and motherf***in' that and turning boys into B-cats and jookin' punks? And yet...were they really any worse than Nero and his Imperial Guard? Epictetus spoke to him--from half a world and two thousand years away! The answer was somewhere in these pages! What little bit Conrad had learned about philosophy at Mount Diablo had seemed to concern people who were free and whose main problem was to choose from among life's infinite possibilities. Only Epictetus began with the assumption that life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business, and that fairness and unfairness are beside the point. Only Epictetus, so far as Conrad knew, was a philosopher who had been stripped of everything, imprisoned, tortured, enslaved, threatened with death. And only Epictetus had looked his tormenters in the eye and said, "You do what you have to do, and I will do what I have to do, which is live and die like a man." And he had prevailed.
There in a nutshell is what Wolfe has been looking for throughout his decades long journey through the American landscape--modern successors to Epictetus, men who live and die like men, who simply do the right thing. He had found two such men in Yeager and Johnson and now, for the first time, he has created a fictional character in their image. And Conrad becomes the vehicle through which Wolfe demonstrates that there is still a tiny flame of genuine decency burning within modern man.
This is the point at which the book becomes truly remarkable. Because Tom Wolfe--68, ill, depressed, snide, old Tom Wolfe--allows Charlie Croker to redeem himself. What a symbol of hope the author holds out to us. Charlie Croker who has been as caught up in the games and role playing of our vacuous modern world as any of the characters, real or fictional, that Wolfe has ever described, finds it within himself to become a man in full, to do the right thing, to live like a man. It turns out that Wolfe is a romantic at heart. His long career attacking pretense is suddenly cast in a different light. It turns out he's been trying to get us to strip away our materialist, politically correct, corporatist, conformist, opportunistic outer selves and become Stoics. Many of the critics refer to this book as Wolfe's most humane work and it is to this realization that they are unknowingly referring. After thirty some odd years of poking fun at people, we find out that he's trying to save their souls.
Of course, all of this is an invitation to ridicule. It's bad enough if you are merely a brilliant conservative. Worse still to be one of the great journalists of all time, and a conservative. Much worse to be a great novelist, and a conservative. But now, here comes the worst blow of all; you just can't be a brilliant journalist/novelist who's a compassionate conservative; you overload the circuits. But at the end of the day that is what we are left with. Radical Chic and Right Stuff established him as a first rate journalist. Bonfire and Man in Full elevate him to the first rank of novelists. If his politics weren't galling enough before, here he is juxtaposing an AID's benefit with a prison rape and calling on us to return to a moral philosophy that predates (and influenced) Christ. And here, in the twilight of his career, it becomes obvious that the Conrad Hensleys and the human possibilities of a Charlie Croker are central to his vision of man. No wonder the reviews are so wildly contradictory and even self-contradictory. The left wing establishment does not even seem to understand what Wolfe has set out to do, but what they do understand, they clearly don't like.
Take a look at what the critics take issue with in his work. Wolfe's critics dislike his politics. Well of course they do, his moral politics are fundamentally two millenia old and profoundly conservative. They say his female characters are weak. Of course they are; he's uninterested in women. All of his work turns out to be an attempt to understand modern men. They say he only presents characters' surface personae, not their inner beings. That's his point; we've abandoned our inner beings, our natural selves, and we live the lives we project to people. The essence of the Wolfe critique--from Radical Chic, to the Apollo program, to modern art--is that modern man is hollow. Like C.S. Lewis' "men without chests", they lack a moral core and so every passing fade or fancy is manifested in their outer beings. Lacking any internal compass for moral guidance, they follow the herd like lemmings. Are gay rights popular? Fine, I'm pro gay! Indian rights are big? I feel Native American pain! Those paint splatter things that my two year old could do are worth $5 million? Jackson Pollack is a genius! You tell me what attitude is at 50% in the polls and that's how I feel. Throughout his career, Wolfe has been throwing these forms of political correctness back in the faces of the literatti and the glitteratti. So, yes, each of these criticisms is absolutely accurate. In fact, they are the point of his writing. The critics just happen to have, typically, missed the point. And so, instead of giving A
on May 26, 2000
This book is about life, and it is not the story (which is very gripping indeed) but the deep development of characters what it counts. Throughout a very detailed physical, satirical and, psychological observation of the ambitions and careers of members of the different social rungs of the Atlanta and America social ladder, Wolfe weaves a story which never falters from beginning to end and maintains the same level of writing style and quality in every chapter. All the characters, stereotyped ones, move interrelated because the actions of some of them bring big misfortunes to the life of others, All share problems in common, that is, making a living, maintaining an image and keeping their high living standards and everyone of them seem to say". Look, I have a situation here..."and are shown enduring their existence in relation to the events that come to their lives. The magic lies in the way the reader is introduced to the life of the character, because one reads and wish to make judgments about everything unexpected that happens, kind of (What I would do in this case ? What if..?) All characters receive equal treatment under the pen of the author, the top tycoon, the frustrated professional and the humblest worker. Pain and disappointment are part of life for all of them and no matter the money and prestige they have or don't have, they must confront and solve complex problems entailing difficult decisions sometimes under big pressure as tough they were hanging on the edge of a cliff. I would have changed the title of this book for another one ".Life in full.......".because some passages provide useful examples and others remarkable observations applying to everyday life ranging from the most important circumstances to the less significant ones. Highly recommendable for a gift to oneself and a dear friend
Charles (Charlie) Croker a middle-aged prominent Atlanta businessman finds his life turned up-side down when his ego brings him to a staggering debt load and to the brink of bankruptcy. Charlie is faced with laying off some workers at his food business to free up cash and buy some time. One victim is young Conrad Hensley who later becomes Charlie's therapist. His bankers smell blood, Raymond Peepgass has even secretly put together a syndicate to take over Crocker's office building at a cut rate.
Meanwhile Georgia star running back Fanon Fareek is accused of date raping the daughter of one of Charlie's society cronies, a pillar of the white establishment. Upscale black lawyer Roger White is asked to represent Fanon and doing so offers Charlie a deal that would get the bank off his back, it would mean speaking in favour of Fareek at a press conference.
With the press conference looming Charlie must decide whether to go along with White's plan by praising Fareek and save his empire or risk losing everything and possibly causing a riot in Atlanta.
The author narrates in this novel a myriad of details and social observations. Wolfe exposes pretension, hypocrisy, malice, greed and vices on top of the dynamism of contemporary life. This novel is a work of satire, utterly dark and brutal with moments of humour and complex emotions. I was immediately grabbed by the fabulous characters Wolfe introduced and the plot revolving around them, I could hardly put the book down.
on December 12, 2003
Tom Wolfe, as is his trademark style, emanates forth in A Man in Full his caustic wit, biting satire, amazingly diverse characters, superior dialogue, and a highly engrossing writing style. Due to this undeniably rare combination in modern fiction, Wolfe elevates himself above the 2 books/year modern authors who churn out books like a factory and value spineless & flavorless style over certifiable substance. Wolfe, in A Man in Full, gives us a work not lacking in either comprehensiveness or profundity. This, like Bonfire, is a great American novel.
Wolfe's refreshing penchant for amazingly lucid and superlatively amusing dialogue makes this book hard to put down. Wolfe ingeniously satirizes the unwritten, although readily apparent, class structure of the South through such bizarrely eclectic characters as Charlie Croker(good ol' boy establishment), his ex-wife Martha(shallow elitist), Fareek "The Canon" Fanon(flatulent inner-city star athlete), Croker's wife Serena(trophy wife), Roger "too" White II(the Morehouse Man in an identity crisis), Conrad Hensley(blue collar drone turned philosopher), and my favorite character, the entertainingly enigmatic Raymond Peepgass(the East Coast crowd moved South).
A Man in Full comes highly recommended to those who value witty, substantive works over vapidly trite novels of fluff.
It's only fitting to conclude with an excerpt of typical Wolfe dialogue from the jail scene:
"But how do you get to be a...player?" Conrad asked Five-O. "What can you do?"
"No do no mo'notting, brah. Use da mouth. NO make beef wit' da buggahs. Use da mouth."
on October 21, 2003
This review refers to the Audio book, masterfully read by David Ogden Stiers.
A MAN IN FULL is a noteworthy work by Tom Wolfe that examines the core of true manliness in the modern world. While there's no swashbuckling, open-shirted flexing of pectorals, just watch as two men are pressed far beyond the breaking point of most - one maintains his honor at the ultimate cost, the other struggles mightily with folding his hand. Both rise from the ashes of their former lives in extraordinary form.
Wolfe has a keen ability to delicately describe the intricacies of interpersonal interactions with delightful detail. Though the audiobook is abridged, it maintains the integrity of Wolfe's wonderful descriptions. The beauty of Wolfe's work is in the subtle, smart observations of human thought, action, and reaction. For example, one of the main characters loves to flex his large lattissimus dorsi (back) muscles as it insinuates his physical dominance not only to his companions, but to himself. Admit it - you know someone like that, and recognizing it will make you smile.
Though cleverly written and plotted, A MAN IN FULL is not for the faint of heart. There is some grizzly, real-world subject matter that may make the reader cringe. There is an artfully crafted scene that far surpasses the end-of-your-rope tension presented by the feature films "Falling Down" and "Changing Lanes", where the reader will feel the vice of life's little injustices add up to an unbearable Herculean burden. There is a particularly gut-wrenching scene that culminates in a hideous violation in a prison shower stall. Though we'd like to assume these things don't happen, Tom Wolfe reports it with a sad urgency that requires the reader's attention.
I would recommend listening to A MAN IN FULL in its audiobook format as read by David Ogden Stiers. I don't believe that I've ever heard an audiobook reader so perfectly matched for a particular novel. Stiers expertly evokes a wide range of American dialects from upper-class white Atlanta, to upper-class black Atlanta, to lower-class Oakland, to white-supremacist prisoner, to Latino, to butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker. The entire performance is pitch-perfect, adding an additional level of emotional involvement in the story. Stiers (of M*A*S*H fame) shines brightest when performing the behind-closed-doors scenes of Atlanta's political and business meetings. He brings the precise amount of vocal snobbery, conceits, and vulnerability that we came to love/hate in his M*A*S*H character, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III.
A MAN IN FULL comes highly recommended for those seeking an excellently crafted novel, with rich descriptions of each character. An additional recommendation comes for the audiobook. David Ogden Stiers provides the ideal avenue on which to (re)experience this well-told tale.
on October 21, 2003
What is a man in full?
Tom Wolfe, author of prior books on banking and astronauts takes us into Atlanta to explore what gets to the root of being a man.
Is it a defense lawyer coming to grips with a racially sensitive legal case? Is it a businessman struggling against the tides of modern banking? Is it a distribution center worker imprisoned out of his own sense of honesty? Is it a banker coming to grips with his declining influence over the years?
We are taken through a complex narrative that weaves the stories of these characters together. A plot driven story of this magnitude can frequently run into trouble, but Mr. Wolfe finds a way to make his character both deep and believable. You find yourself rooting for them despite their imperfections.
Similar to Bonfire of the Vanities, Mr. Wolfe investigates the pretenses that we have put around ourselves. Stripping them away reveals a deeper understanding of strength and character. Writing about this is what Tom Wolfe is all about.
Who and what is a Man in Full? I hope you will have an answer after reading the book. :-)
on October 3, 2003
I read the hard-cover edition of this book because my professor at a prominent real estate school recommended it. Well, I shouldn't say recommended it more than mentioned it class with such a mischievous look in the eye that it piqued my curiosity.
Wolfe had consulted with my professor for this book, and I could tell where Wolfe integrated the information. For example, Croker breaks the developer's rule of never becoming personally liable for loans. The mischievous look from the professor was probably due to the unconventional way in which Croker acquires the land for his tower of egomania. Plot spoiler: Croker essentially incites a race riot that depresses the value of speculative land in the county 20-fold. I suppose such tactics are fair game for a novel, but in the real world, this can turn heads. The novel is supposedly fiction, but sometimes one wonders, given the "Streptofoam"-lined baby seats and legal research on "Lexus and Nexus". Fareek "The Cannon" Fannon's sexcapade has uncanny semblance to (and perhaps lessons for) the Kobe Bryant saga going on now. The almost too close parallels to reality are what make the book an exciting read.
The last novel I read was, interestingly enough, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a book known for the (literary) strength of its female lead character. Wolfe also has Tolstoy's remarkable perceptive ability with regards to what people are thinking in social and private situations. In many cases, this is what adds humour to the book. By contrast, Wolfe does not aim to make sweeping political statements in this story. Its primary theme and sole purpose is given by the title--to describe the powerful, dominative, egotistical, brutish male psyche and spirit, that is seductive in its unrelenting "drive for the deal."
on August 24, 2003
This is a harrowing social novel of the Atlanta elite, both black and white. The main character is a former football player, now real estate developer, with a second wife and a load of financial problems. Another major character is an intelligent, highly principled (white) warehouseman whose path ultimately crosses the real estate developer's. I did not find any of the other principal characters very well developed. At the same time, Wolfe's forte is to richly imagine and convey the emotion of a scene, and many of these tour de force scenes involve black characters. No one will ever accuse Wolfe of subtlety, but his prose can be fun as well as effective and creative. I won't give it away but I did not like the ending: a happy, conventional ending suggested it itself, and would actually have been more realistic than the ending chosen. Wolfe is interested in the ancient Stoics , and does very well in giving life and relevance to their philosophy, but carries it just a bit too far; in fun?
on May 1, 2003
Tom Wolfe's novel, A Man in Full is an intriguing book about sixty-year old Atlanta real estate developer whose empire has begun a grim slide toward bankruptcy and a twenty-three-year-old manual laborer who works in the freezer unit of a wholesale food warehouse in Alameda County, California, owned by the developer.
The book starts out with Charlie Croker, out shooting quail on his vast South Georgia plantation. Then moves on to Roger White, a spiffy black lawyer, as he drives to an urgent appointment. It moves to a variety of people who have some connection with each other. And Wolfe tells a part of their lives to answer a single question who is truly a man in full.
To answer that question Wolfe brings in men who have every thing and men who are happy with what they have and the two main charters are like this they are an owner of a major company and one of the shipping employees.
I believe that wolf uses the connections that you make with his charters very well in telling his story. Any one who reads this book will be intrigued by it development of its characters and his ability to keep you enthused. Wolfe says
"If a man has talent and can't use it, he's failed. If he uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he uses the whole of it, he has succeeded, and won a satisfaction and triumph few men ever know."
This goes to show you how he thinks and gives you some insight to the great mind that wrote A Man In Full.