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A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe
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Reviewed by: David Smillie
Waal, here's the deal, y'all. Yew gat this good ol boy, Charlier Croker. Now Charlie, he's whatcha might call a "self-made man". Football hero, made millions buyin' and sellin' land ... but what he likes most? Waal, he's just a simple boy ... loves biscuits, shootin' quail and his pretty young wife. Izzee a "man in full"? Y'all might think so ... but Charlie's got a bit of a secret ... he's in debt up past his eyeballs. The bank's breathin' down on him like a randy hound dog on a bitch in heat ... and if Charlie don't make a deal -- a big one -- he'll lose it all.
Ye gods, how can people write in dialect? Rest easy, Wolfe doesn't try to sustain writing like I just did. Instead, he'll usually slip into dialect to give the reader a "flavour" ... a better sense not of what's going on, but who's saying it. A Man In Full is Wolfe's latest novel. Greeted with great fanfare and hooplah when it came out, rising quickly to the top of the bestseller lists, selected for every book club and seen on every TV chat show ...
So is it worth it?
Oh yeah. It's worth it. Tom Wolfe happens to be one of our most remarkable living writers. He's capable of writing fiction and non-fiction, with the same driving sense of urgency. He can create worlds or explain our own to us. And in this case, do both. His reality in A Man in Full is no less pressing or relevant than the reality of The Right Stuff.
Wolfe's characters are presented with a few simple brush-strokes, that Quickly take on nuances as they move through the novel. We come to see that in Wolfe's Atlanta there is no clear-cut ... everything is presented in shades of grey. Even when Wolfe presents a stereotype (such as the pampered athlete) he takes pains to show that every character in his book is three-dimensional.
This creates an odd dynamic. Wolfe doesn't give us any clear hero to root for, or a villain to root against. Each character moves through the pageant of the story, trying to achieve his or her own goals, but in the process there's no sense that any one character is "right" or "should" prosper at the expense of another. As they move, we see more and more of them ... and realize our initial conception of each character was hopelessly shallow. Not unlike real life. How often do people really live up to our initial conceptions of them? Not often. And neither do Wolfe's characters. I wonder if this comes out of Wolfe's background in writing non-fiction.
Wolfe was one of the pioneers of the "new journalism" ... a radical move to liberate journalism from its traditional objectivity and detachment, and to make the author a player in the story. The emotional reactions (the journey taken by the writer) become an important component in the story itself. Ultimately, of course, you're still telling a story about real people ...who tend to be complicated creatures. I suspect this rubs off on Wolfe's fictional creations as well. There's no-one to really root for, in that every character has warts. Charlie Croker is a redneck and a racist. The mayor of Atlanta is a scheming, political puppet-master. The banker who plots Charlie's downfall is the closest thing to a villain, but he's just init for the money because he needs it. He's no worse than the opponent he pits himself against.
Ultimately, the lack of a good-evil dichotomy is reflected in the book's ending. No-one in this book gets what they wanted. But almost everyone gets what's best for them. A few minutes after setting the book aside, I realized I was grinning. Things didn't work themselves out the way I wanted ... but they did work out the best way possible. Without giving away the end (which is quite a surprise) it turns out to be the greatest good for the greatest number. Very satisfying.
What can I say of Wolfe's writing style? It's fluid, urgent and driving - making this a very difficult book to set aside. It's really perfect summer reading, in that it has the feel of a simple, almost cartoonish conflict. But ultimately there's a lot more here. And when you understand who the "Man in Full" really is ... you'll understand a lot more about contemporary America than you did when you started reading.
Buy it, take it to the beach or the cottage. It's well worth it.
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