The setting is Atlanta, Georgia - a racially mixed, late-century boomtown full of fresh wealth and wily politicians. The protagonist is Charles Croker, once a college football star, now a late-middle-aged Atlanta conglomerate king whose outsize ego has at last hit up against reality. Charlie has a 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation, a young and demanding second wife - and a half-empty office complex with a staggering load of debt. Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, idealistic young father of two, is laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near Oakland and finds himself spiraling into the lower depths of the American legal system. And back in Atlanta, when star Georgia Tech running back Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, a homegrown product of the city's slums, is accused of date-raping the daughter of a pillar of the white establishment, upscale black lawyer Roger White II is asked to represent Fanon and help keep the city's delicate racial balance from blowing sky-high.
Wolfe tells us in his pumped up prose style that the pram is British Silver Cross, the furniture is Hepplewhite, the yacht is Hatteras, and the private plane, taken to a condo in Vail, is a Gulfstream 5 with Sky-Watch radar that costs $40 million.
What Wolfe is best at is tapping into our fear of losing the farm (there's a literal farm at risk in A Man in Full). He plumbs the depth of our night-sweat terrors that all our charm and credit will run out, that the banks and other savage tribes are out there waiting to pounce if we under-develop, or over-extend, or park our Lexus in the wrong neighborhood.
Wolfe's still got a Dickensian talent for funny names (a law firm named Tripp, Snayer & Billings; a character named Raymond Peepgass), but he's become superficial and unconvincing as he thumbs his nose at modern art and modern architecture, at black hustlers and white kneejerkers, at multiculturalists, radical feminists, rock and roll music ("Pus Casserole and the Child Abusers"), gay pride ("lesbians wearing paratrooper boots"), and AIDS Benefits:
"Lets Rap for Clap"
"Let's Riff for Syph"
"Let's Go Hug a Dyin' Bugger"
"Let's Pay Our Dues to Pustular Ooze"
"Glory Me -- I Got da HIV"
That's about as profound as he gets on sexuality. On politics, he's even more succinct -- It's all about "seeing them jump."
He's lost the funny, wide-angled lens he employed in The Bonfire of the Vanities. In A Man in Full he's superficial -- an elitist Andy Warhol.
Contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo follow suit by stuffing books full of more victuals than your average Thanksgiving Day turkey. It’s best to keep a napkin handy while reading these tomes.
Those who enjoyed the bites Wolfe took out of the Big Apple in Bonfire, will not be disappointed with the equally lusty mouthfuls he takes from the Big Peach, Atlanta. I must caution you, however, that anyone looking for a travelogue of the New South will be disappointed. I lived in Atlanta for three years and hardly recognized any of the geographic descriptions flowing from Wolfe’s pen. Then again, maybe I just didn’t travel in the right Atlanta society circles.
And society is what A Man in Full is all about. From an art gallery benefit in Midtown to a quail-hunting plantation out in the country to a state prison out in California, Wolfe creates a world of molasses-voiced men and big-haired women that is at once satiric and believable.
This is a sprawling, drawling (and, at times, brawling) novel that revolves around the downfall of one man, Charlie Croker, a has-been football player for Georgia Tech whose 1950s-era glory has long since faded, replaced by layers of corporate blubber. Now, he’s at the peak of his career as a real estate developer. And when I say "peak," I mean that literally—he has nowhere else to go but down. A Man in Full charts Croker’s slide down the slippery slope of bankruptcy, egomania and all-around Southern hubris.
Croker is a big man, in both physical and literary stature. He’s a thick-necked cartoon who condescends to his African-American staff, has the bravery (and stupidity) to pick up a rattlesnake with his bare hands and prizes above everything else his private jet and an original oil painting by N.C. Wyeth. I didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy for this good ol’ boy and, in fact, I was almost delighted to witness his downfall. Croker is a Georgia Job who watches his personal empire stripped away from him.
There are subplots aplenty, as there are in any piece of sprawling literature. There’s the black attorney at an all-white firm who wrestles with whether the color of his skin is too white or too black; there’s the worker fired from one of Croker’s food warehouses who has a truly bad day and winds up in the state prison; there’s the black athlete from Georgia Tech who allegedly assaults a white debutante whose accusation fuels most of the book’s pivotal events; even the mayor gets involved in the soap opera because it looks like good politics. No level in Southern society is spared the poison from Wolfe’s pen. Wolfe takes the antebellum South and turns it on its genteel head. Call it "Gone With the Wind, the Viagra Years."
As he proved in Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe has the scope and the humor of a latter-day Charles Dickens. Even the names sprinkled throughout the book echo the great Victorian novelist: Raymond Peepgass, Opey McCorkle, Coach Buck McNutter and (in my mind, the funniest) the law firms Fogg Nackers Rendering & Lean and Wringer Fleasom & Tick. There’s also a horse breeding scene that rivals anything Dickens wrote for its wild humor—your jaw will drop as you watch Croker make a complete fool of himself in the breeding barn. For a taste of Wolfe’s rich prose, read how he sets the stage:
Inside the barn, it took a moment to adjust your eyes to the contrasts of light and dark, since there were no windows in the walls, only a row of clerestory windows under the eaves. All at once, as if on cue, a great shaft of sunlight, vibrating with dust particles, streamed down from one of the little windows and lit up the dirt floor like a stage. There, spotlit by the sunbeam, was a narrow wooden enclosure with low walls, a type of stall known as a stock; and in the stock stood a large pale-bay mare. The warm, heavy, gumbo smell of horseflesh filled the place, suffused every rhinal cavity, permeated your very gizzard.
There’s plenty more lip-smacking prose where that came from in the remainder of this Southern-fried epic.
And yet, and yet…
It took me more than three weeks to work my way through this book. You’d think I’d absolutely love it after devoting that much time to its pages. But I don’t. Oh sure, I greatly admire Wolfe’s ambition and energy, but I was left feeling….well, a little odd and put-out by Croker’s antics. About a hundred pages was all I could take of his self-pity and material excess. There was nothing to love about Croker. Mr. Wolfe should remember that even buffoons need to be loved.
Then there’s the ending. While I was satisfied with how things worked out for the characters, the way Wolfe chooses to tell it—a contrived conversation between the black attorney and the mayor—is clumsy and ill-conceived. After devoting so much care to the rest of the book, Wolfe should have spent a few more hours rewriting the final pages. It was a disappointing epilogue to an otherwise well-crafted work. It left this man, at least, feeling empty.
A Man in Full traces the converging paths of a bombastic Atlanta property developer, a penniless-but-honorable manual laborer, and a prominent black lawyer as all struggle with the simple question: what does it mean to be a man?
Croker could be taken with Epictetus, but who can say? He is Wolfe's creation.
While I remembered the basic premise (a wealthy, peckerwood Atlanta real estate developer goes bankrupt and gets drawn into a racial firestorm), it is the details that make this novel so entertaining.
I’ve read some of the criticisms, and while I concede that some have merit, the simple fact is, this novel is, at times, uproaringly funny, and at other times simply engrossing. The characters are almost Dickens-like in their appeal, from the mid-level loan officer, Ray Peepgas (is that not a Dickens name) to the Black attorney Roger White II, nicknamed Roger Too White to the chief protagonist, Charley Croker (the Sixty Minute Man), Wolfe constantly crafts dialogue that is just too good to be believed.
I must admit I was not wild about the ending, which kind of ran out of steam, but for 600 plus pages, this story was a pleasure to consume for a second time.