Thursday, October 13, 2016

Book Review: A Man in Full

A Fair Trade Book

Title: A Man in Full

Author: Tom Wolfe

Author's web site: (Warning: Adobe graphics, memory hog)

Date: 1998 (FSG), 1999 (Bantam)

Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux (hardcover), Bantam (paperback)

ISBN: 0-553-58093-0

Length: 787 pages

Quote: “Charlie Croker…often said to himself what he was saying to himself at this moment: ‘Yes! I got a back like a Jersey bull!’”

For his novelistic purposes, Tom Wolfe has found or invented a long-gone Charlie Croker who fits the macho-man stereotype traditional American rhymesters used to attribute to “Uncle Bud” or various other characters, “a man in full” with a back like a Jersey bull. I’ve not found a variant where the character’s name was documented as “Charlie Croker”; that doesn’t mean one may not exist somewhere. The Charlie Croker who is the richer and older protagonist of this novel enjoys thinking of himself as a namesake or descendant of the legendary character. This bit of back-story is a clue to what this long novel is about. It’s an earthy, though not exactly smutty, celebration of manhood—as distinct from boyhood, or maybe wimphood, more than womanhood.

Charlie Croker is the “old school” heir to wealth that includes not only an old plantation, with horses and hounds and enough land to exercise them all on British-style hunting parties, but also a Croker Global Corporation that owns, among other things, “freezer warehouses” where the entire building is kept freezing cold. Laborers dress like Eskimos and leave the warehouses, at the end of a day, with icicles hanging from their noses.

Conrad Hensley is one of those laborers, brave and generous and bursting with just-out-of-his-teens energy, when he’s laid off. This news makes his co-workers yell (all caps in the book), “WHO’S THE **** FER BRAINS, NICK? YOU’RE LAYING OFF THE BEST MAN IN THIS WHOLE **** PLACE!”  Conrad’s reaction is to go and apply for other jobs, but because he’s a character in a novel about the 1990s economy, everything goes wrong and nothing goes right and Conrad gets deeper and deeper into trouble, exploring the prison system as well as the wacky world of job-hunting, illegal immigration, and more.

In order for these characters’ stories to form a plot, the rich man (who’s dealing with his own troubles) and the poor man must inevitably meet. Instead of acting out a Marxist Statement About the Class Struggle, however, they bond over a shared admiration for the ideas of Epictetus the Stoic. They agree that Epictetus’ philosophy was not about denying or rejecting all “feelings,” certainly not about renouncing pleasure, but about refusing to be manipulated by fear. They meet and enlighten some other characters, too...

Plot details too complicated for a short review have to be resolved in court, where Charlie and Conrad each separately surprise everybody by refusing to be manipulated by fear, giving their stories a fantastically satisfactory ending.

What’s not to like? The story is about men’s social relationships with other men; there are women characters, but they’re shadowy. Some of them are also bad; a minor character has been accused of rape, and seems to be meant to evoke more sympathy than his accuser. How realistic is that? How realistic is the whole story? Has a guilty defendant, however sympathetic, ever been “released in the custody of Zeus”? 

Once you start comparing a Tom Wolfe novel to reality, even when a large part of its plot seems to be fact-based, the whole thing begins to unravel. It’s not a news report, after all, it’s a big long novel that’s written well enough that you might have continued suspending disbelief for several minutes after closing the book. 

Some reviewers, including the one at the Amazon page where you can still buy this book new (go ahead, I theoretically get commissions that way too), feel that A Man in Full is Wolfe's best novel. I don't know. I enjoyed it more than I Am Charlotte Simmons; I think novelists come closer to reality when writing about their own gender. (So far I've enjoyed the nonfiction more than the fiction of every author who's written both, that I've ever read, with the sole exception of Margaret Atwood. I am not a reliable guide to the enjoyment quotient of fiction.)

Anyway, Wolfe is still alive and active in cyberspace, at 85, so any and all of his books (prior to this one) can be purchased here as Fair Trade Books: $5 (typically) per book, $5 per package for shipping, $1 per online payment to equalize the cost of more secure purchasing via postal money order, from which total of $10 or $11 we send $1 to Wolfe or a charity of his choice. You could fit at least four of Wolfe's paperbacks into a package for a total of $25 or $26, or mix it up by adding books by other authors to the package. (Browse this site for ideas, or add books from your Amazon Wish list.)