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