Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

A Man In Full ()

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 Man in Full the National Book Award, they give it to the entirely forgettable Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (read Orrin's review).  And the whole situation is beautiful--it's just dripping with irony--Tom Wolfe says that we're all shallow trend sucking dilettantes?  We'll show him, we won't give him this book award!  What could be more delightful?  Can they even spell irony?

In the final analysis, this is a flawed novel.  But they are mostly flaws of excess, of overreaching, and do we really want to take our best authors to task for being to generous with their vision, for trying to hard?  One wonders why you have to rush a book to the printers after 11 years in the making and I've begun to despair of the likelihood that book editors will ever do their jobs again.  It's repetitious in some places, it's self indulgent at times (just because Wolfe did research on obscure stuff doesn't mean we need or want to know what he found out) and the book cries out to either be trimmed back in order to further focus the story or to have some of the material that was cut put back in, in order to tie up loose ends.    It seems to me that Wolfe did his job; he turned in a sprawling epic that had material for more than one book.  It was the editors who failed; they failed in their fundamental duty, to take the raw material and help shape it into the best form possible.  As you read, there is a nagging sense that a superior book lurks within this pretty good one.  But hell, it's hard to be too upset about a pretty good book, especially when it takes soi many chances and succeeds on so many levels.

The book ends with a character promising: "Oh, don't worry...I'll be back."  Let's hope that Tom Wolfe too will be back.  Let's hope there's at least one more shaggy behemoth of a novel left in him.

Charlie Herzog's Review:
A Man in Full:  The new Tom Wolfe does a great job of capturing the feel of the 90's.  As with Bonfire of the Vanities, if you live in a big city and  are involved self-important rich people, a lot of what he writes rings very true.  The cultural observations are dead on, as always-- and you get the feeling that for all their faults, Wolfe likes these characters a lot more than he did the ones from the 80's.  The ending sort of fizzles and it's not a book that stays with you, but as a cultural potato chip it's quite entertaining if not very filling.



Grade: (A-)


See also:

Tom Wolfe (7 books reviewed)
General Literature
Tom Wolfe Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Tom Wolfe
    -INDEX: Tom Wolfe (Harper's)
    -INDEX: Tom Wolfe (Esquire)
-ESSAY: Tom Wolfe Appreciates "Studs Lonigan" (Tom Wolfe, Top Ten Books)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Studs Terkel and Tom Wolfe discuss architecture and Wolfe's book, From Bauhaus to Our House (Studs Terkel Radio Archive, BROADCAST: Nov. 16, 1981)
    -ESSAY: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Tom Wolfe, Esquire)
    -ESSAY: The Marvelous Mouth of Cassius Clay: The year before he became Muhammad Ali forever, legendary writer Tom Wolfe spent a week and a half with the legend (Tom Wolfe, Esquire)
    -ESSAY: The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’; Eyewitness Report (Tom Wolfe, New York)
    -ESSAY: Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s (Tom Wolfe, New York)
    -ESSAY: The Building That Isn't There, Cont'd: One of the most important buildings in the history of 20th-century architecture will soon be vaporized. (TOM WOLFE, 10/13/03, NY Times)
    -AUDIO: A TimesTalks Event: Tom Wolfe (NY Times, 3/08/03)
    -QUESTIONS: Tom Wolfe: Following his participation in the TimesTalks series on March 8, the author answered readers' questions. (NY Times, April 24, 2003)
    -ESSAY: REVOLUTIONARIES: how the Manhattan Institute changed New York City and America (Tom Wolfe, January 30, 2003, NY Post)
    -ESSAY: Idea Fashions of the Eighties: After Marx, What? (Tom Wolfe, January 1984, Imprimis)
    -ESSAY: Stalking the billion-footed beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel (Tom Wolfe, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: THE LAST AMERICAN HERO IS JUNIOR JOHNSON. YES! (Tom Wolfe, 3/01/1965, Esquire)
    -AUDIO: The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!
-PODCAST: The Wolfe in the White Suit (w/ Osita Nwanevu): Writer Osita Nwanevu joins to discuss the life and work of novelist and "new journalist" Tom Wolfe. (Know your Enemy, 7/05/24)
-ESSAY: The Electric Kool-Aid Conservative Tom Wolfe was no radical. (Osita Nwanevu/January 5, 2024, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Why does no one write like Tom Wolfe any more?: In a polarised culture, appetite for the late writer’s brand of wry conservative satire has waned – and he is partly to blame. (Nick Burns, 12/28/23, New Statesman)
    -TRIBUTE: The Statustician!:Tom Wolfe was death on intellectual pretension, and he mocked those who always sought out the worst in America. (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, May 24, 2018, Weekly Standard)
    -PROFILE: Status Reporter: Tom Wolfe's advice: Escape the "parenthesis states" and explore America (JOSEPH RAGO, March 11, 2006, Opinion Journal)
    -INTERVIEW: Mummy Wrap: an interview with Tom Wolfe (George Neumayr, 1/10/2005, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY: The author in full: Tom Wolfe: Wolfe excelled at capturing human foibles and petty vanities; anything deeper than that escaped him (Chilton Williamson, Jr., 11/11/20, The Spectator)
    -INTERVIEW: Tom Wolfe on how speech made us human (Steve Heilig, March 16, 2008, SF Gate)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Tom Wolfe and The Painted Word (Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., Episode S0191, Recorded on July 9, 1975)
    -PROFILE: The Ice Cream Man with the Clean White Suit (Alex Belth, The Stacks Reader)
    -EXCERPT: Wolfe and Breslin and the Birth of New York Magazine (Richard Kluger, From The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune)
    -ESSAY: Tom Wolfe: The Satirist Whose Wit Hardened into Contempt 1930-2018 (KEVIN BAKER, December 30, 2018, Politico)
-ESSAY: Bush's Official Reading List, and a Racy Omission (ELISABETH BUMILLER, 2/07/05, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Against De-Materialization: Tom Wolfe in the Age of NFTs (Julia Friedman and David Hawkes, 09 Mar 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: ‘Radical Chic’: Still Cringey After All These Years: Like author Tom Wolfe's caustic take in 1970, radicalism is being cultivated today in the best penthouses and corporate suites. (JAMES PINKERTON, 6/10/20, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of The Purple Decades: A Reader by Tom Wolfe (James Walcott, NY Review of Books)
    Modern, All Too Modern: Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will.: a review of of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Tom Wolfe - A Clear Eye for Human Biodiversity (Steve Sailer, January 02, 2005, V-Dare)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Dana B. Vachon, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (Ken Masugi,
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Priya Jain, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (S. T. Karnick, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW: of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Andrew Zwart, Books & Culture)


    -REVIEW: of Radical Wolfe (Stephen Silver, Splice Today)
    -REVIEW: of Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey (John Tierney, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Tom Wolfe’s Worldview Came Into Focus In New York (Christopher Bonanos, September 2023, Vulture)
    -PODCAST: Richard Dewey, John Tierney: Discussing the New Tom Wolfe Documentary (City Journal: 10 Blocks podcast, 9/15/23)
    -FILM REVIEW: Radical Wolfe (Titus Techera, Religion & Liberty)
    -TV REVIEW: Less Than Half ‘A Man in Full’: One of US television’s most experienced and talented writers has made a mess of Tom Wolfe’s second novel. (Kevin Mims, 13 May 2024, Quillette)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full
    -Caricature from The Atlantic
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Tom Wolfe (NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "tom wolfe" (Find Articles)
    -Creative Nonfiction: Writers and Their Works
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe : What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American's World
    -ESSAY : Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died (Tom Wolfe, Forbes)
    -ETEXT: The Last American Hero by Tom Wolfe
    -EXCERPT: from A Man in Full : Prologue
    -EXCERPT: from A Man in Full : Chapter Two
    -ESSAY: Disciplines: What do a Jesuit priest, a Canadian communications theorist, and Darwin II all have in common? (Tom Wolfe, Forbes)
   -REVIEW: of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ROY COHN By Sidney Zion Dangerous Obsessions (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CECIL BEATON A Biography. By Hugo Vickers SNOB'S PROGRESS (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE LAST LAUGH By S.J. Perelman THE EXPLOITS OF EL SID (Tom Wolfe, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Tom Wolfe, in Full (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Lit Kit)
    -CBC Interview
    -INTERVIEW (Steve Hammer NUVO Newsweekly)
    -PROFILE : BRILLIANT CAREERS : Tom Wolfe :  He put New Journalism on the map with writing that shook as fiercely as it shimmered. (CARY TENNIS, Salon)
    -PROFILE: TOM WOLFE, MATERIAL BOY (Rand Richards Cooper, Commonweal)
    -Profile: Tom Wolfe, in 'Full' flower (USA Today)
    -PROFILE : The Wolfe in Chic Clothing :  Manliness runs a deep course through American life, but it is hard to find at Harvard, says Tom Wolfe.The celebrated author explains the contemporary male. FM returns the favor and examines Wolfe's own dubious masculinity (James Y. Stern, Harvard Crimson)
    -PROFILE: TOM WOLFE (Richard A. Kallan)
    -PROFILE: Don Dapper: Tom Wolfe conquers windmills on Brown's battlefield (Amanda Griscom)
    -Tom Wolfe: The Satirist of Society (Caitlin Allen, Brighton High School)
    -ESSAY : November 4, London.(Below the Fold)(The Lancet)
    -ESSAY : ON LANGUAGE : Hooking Up (WILLIAM SAFIRE, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY :  Schooling Public Intellectuals : A Talking Head Ph.D. (Norah Vincent, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: A Man Half Full (Norman Mailer, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Man in Full By Tom Wolfe. (Michael Lewis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Man in Full (PJ O'Rourke, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Man in Full Tom Wolfe, Entertaining Pop Writer, Doesn't Pass the Balzac Acid Test (Harold Bloom, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Man in Full (Martin Amis, booksunlimited)
    -REVIEW: Tom Wolfe's Rooftop Yawp His crackling novel deserves to be news. But America is better than Wolfe's Atlanta. (George F. Will, Newsweek)
    -REVIEW: A Man in Full (Tom Walker, Denver Post Books Editor)
    -REVIEW: Georgia on His Mind: Tom Wolfe takes on the New South in 'A Man in Full' (Malcolm Jones Jr., Newsweek)
    -REVIEW: Wolfe takes full measure of 'Man' (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today)
    -REVIEW:  of A Man in Full (Sven Birkerts, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: A Riot of Egomania  (Ty Hudson, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW of A Man in Full: From he-man to holy man (Salon)
    -REVIEW of A Man in Full, The White Stuff (jeffrey eugenides, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW : of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Jerome Kramer, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW: J. Peder Zane: Far from empty, not quite full (News and Observer)
    -REVIEW: A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Christopher Caldwell, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: BookBrowser Review
    -REVIEW: Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic (Jordan Hoffman)
    -REVIEW: of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (FRITZ LANHAM, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: Tom Wolfe still has the right stuff, despite snub by left-wing literary set (Chuck Moss, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW: The culture's lone Wolfe The chronicler of radical chic and trophy wives captures the nineties in his new novel (Gene Edward Veith, World)
    -REVIEW : of Man in Full (Warren Berger, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of A Man in Full (Ty Hudson, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of  A Man in Full By Tom Wolfe (Rhoda Koenig, Literary Review)

    -etext: The Enchiridion, or Manual Epictetus c. 135 CE.  James Fieser
    -etext: The Discourses   By Epictetus
    -etext: The Meditations  By Marcus Aurelius  Written 167 A.C.E.  Translated by George Long
    -Stoicism: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    -ESSAY: Materials for the Construction  of  Shakespeare's Morals:  The Stoic Legacy  to the Renaissance (Ben R. Schneider, Jr , Professor Emeritus of English)
    -The Stoic Place at Western Kentucky University  maintained by Dr. Jan Garrett
    -Zeno of Cittium - founder of Stoicism
    -ESSAY: The 9 Core Stoic Beliefs (Stephen Hanselman, Daily Stoic)