A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. Novel, 1998, 787 pages.
I’ve heard of Tom Wolfe for years, of course. I’ve seen a movie based on one of the big (make that BIG) books he likes to write (The Right Stuff—about the early batch of astronauts). But this is my first time actually sitting down and reading him.
This one is set mainly in and around Atlanta. It details the eventual fall (and in the end, spiritual rebirth) of a south Georgia Good-Ole-Boy turned tycoon. There’s a pretty massive cast of supporting characters and sub-plots, which on reflection comes as no surprise when you consider the epic length of this novel. Atlanta politics, a rich stew of race and class relations, and the hero status of big-time athletes (and how that can end up making the athlete an inviting target for some) all figure in here, along with real estate ‘bubbles,’ trophy wives, pure greed and excessive egos–all this and more come in for a satirical attention that tends mostly to the dramatic, but at times can almost be pretty amusing.
Self-styled “Cap’m” Charlie Croker has muscled his way from a dirt-poor background in the rural south to immense wealth and power in the Big City and beyond. But having just turned 60, his runaway hubris (combined with a downturn in the economy) have him in sights of vengeful bankers. They were all-too-eager to indulge even his most reckless whims when everything was going good. But now they’re taking equal pleasure in his distress and are coming after him with blatantly self-righteous fury (and yes, envy-fueled glee).
A lot of ordinary people come to suffer as a result, especially a well-meaning laborer whose life gets torn apart when Charlie has to downsize one of his out-of-state businesses in a frantic effort to survive financially. This bright young man’s fall eventually lands him in prison in California, where a literary mix-up leads to an odd spiritual awakening and a natural disaster allows him to escape, have all sorts of offbeat adventures and eventually end up as the suddenly downtrodden Charlie’s care-giver-turned-spirit-guide.
Meanwhile, the new political elite of black-majority Atlanta finds itself at odds with an old-money (white) business mogul out for vengeance. Roger White, a rising young African-American attorney whose attempts to stay on the good side of the traditional (i.e. Caucasian) power structure earned him the scornful nickname of Roger Too-White, is tasked with saving an obnoxious (but possibly innocent) black football star from racially explosive charges. He hatches an improbable scheme to in effect blackmail Charlie into helping the young man (in exchange for saving Charlie’s financial empire). Roger has no idea that “Cap’m” Charlie’s last-minute spiritual awakening will throw the plan into chaos (and yet perversely prove helpful).
Many weird twists and turns occur along the way and we get to experience a lot of atmospheric ‘local color’ (no racial pun intended). Wolfe writes vividly and surehandedly about both the super-wealthy and the working class folk, white and black alike.
Overall, a fine book (the title is explained early on and refers to Croker’s seeing himself as living up to an old-time plantation owner’s reputation). I did find the man’s final transformation (into what I won’t spoil for other readers) to feel a bit strained in comparison to all we’d seen before, but it certainly didn’t ruin the book for me.
I’d class this one as a social satire on a sprawling, if mostly subtle, scale–and a quite good one, indeed.