Sunday 22 December 2019

Book review: A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe (1998)

There’s absolutely no way, after #MeToo, that this book could be published today. But it’s not a mindless throwback to a time of endemic sexual abuse – although it is true that community standards have changed dramatically in recent decades. Being Wolfe, the book was “topical”; Wolfe started out writing as a journalist so he was attuned to changes in people’s conduct and rendered it with a journalist’s eye for detail. There are some proofing errors in the text that might have been avoided, but this novel of manners is a good read.

I bought this book, no doubt on sale (there’s a sticker on the dust jacket saying “$3”) long ago; I don’t remember when or where. It has been in my collection for years and since cleaning out the library I have been able to access books like this that have sat untouched for years. I’m glad, in this case, that I did.

The drama plays out in episodes and point of view switches between a number of key characters, sometimes even doing so within individual sections of the book. Most often, however, each chapter or section is focalised through the consciousness of a single person, for example Charlie Croker, a real estate developer and a stalwart of the Atlanta business community whose affairs are in disarray due to a downturn in the property market. Or Ray Peepgass, an employee at PlannersBanc, which had lent Croker $175 million to put up a new office tower on the fringes of the city.

Or Conrad Hensley, a young father in Oakland, just west of San Francisco, who works in a distribution centre operated by Croker’s company. Or Roger Too White, a black Atlanta lawyer whom the mayor of the city ropes in to help defuse a delicate situation with a racial angle. The mayor’s target is none other than Croker. 

Race and the poor conduct of men in regard to women are subject to Wolfe’s forensic gaze (Wolfe would return to the latter of these themes, in more detail, in 2004’s ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’) but so, too, is Capital and the ways that people pursue meaning in their lives. Croker surprises and Hensley turns out to have a major impact on the direction, at the end of the book, the story takes. But does this tale have the authenticity of lived experience? 

Wolfe’s fictional tactics are to use episodes of carefully-examined narrative to build the dramatic arc and to create suspense. You are presented with heavy pages of prose that are replete with the minutiae of life, such as the scene that presents itself to White, one day, when he attends a service in a church in a poor part of the city. The people around Roger, the preacher on the stage, the choir, the organist, the politician who comes in to make a speech: all of it is rendered delicately in Technicolor so that you get an experience approximating reality. The texture of the place and the people are openly on display. 

Wolfe also examines work in some detail, which is unusual. This is a theme that has been more recently addressed by Halle Butler in ‘The New Me’, which is about a woman who works in offices. Wolfe’s approach has similarities with respect to Butler’s.

One cogent detail is Wolfe’s use of the word “hive” to refer to the rumour mill that animates a society. He also brings in internet culture in the form of a blog where a story at the centre of the drama first appears. When I read these sections of the book I was reminded of a book by two American authors titled ‘The Hive’, which I reviewed last month. Baden and Lyga posit a dystopian future where social media is weaponised by the authorities in order to control people’s behaviour. This scenario is very Wolfian, although their book is for the YA market (it’s still a good read, in case you’re interested).

In many ways, ‘A Man in Full’ revisits ground Wolfe covered in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ of 1987. The difference however is in more than just a change of scene – from New York to Atlanta. In the later novel, Wolfe also explores, as far as he is able to given the constraints placed on him by his method, the notion of secular signification. 

He doesn’t use much poetry to achieve his aims; the subtlety is all in the same kind of method that production companies use when making a sitcom. Characters are shown talking to one another and the fabric of the setting – whether in an office in a commercial building or in a banquet hall in a public space – is described with all of its attendant details along with their common meanings. The dialogue is rendered with the kind of authenticity that Walter Scott achieved two centuries ago, and some of it is hard to understand (for example, in scenes in a prison) but translations are provided to get the reader through the difficult parts.

There is a kind of poetry in this way of dealing with characters and places, but Wolfe doesn’t use poetry in the same way that many authors have done since the big changes in the way of writing prose arrived a century ago. He had a journalist’s reverence for facts; interiority is often rendered using snippets of prose separated by ellipses rather than with a more (now) conventional stream-of-consciousness. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating novel and I recommend it as a way to revisit a past that is, now, gone, even though only recently so.

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