Tom Wolfe : Fear and Loathing in Atlanta

Tom Wolfe  – A Man in Full
(Jonathan Cape)

I love Tom Wolfe’s ambition and his sense of humour.

Some US reviews said that the story did not resolve well, but I like the ending.It is not preposterous if you have entered into the spirit of the story.

OK, the book is not perfect. A Man in Full is not among the 25 greatest novels of this century, like Lolita or Catch-22 or Something Happened or Libra.

Tom Wolfe’s genius in the Sixties and Seventies lay in the vitality with which he reported on sub-cultures, celebrities and superstars.

When he wrote about Phil Spector in The First Tycoon of Teen, or about Muhammad Ali, or about media guru Marshall McLuhan in What If He Is Right? or about Hugh Hefner, the Playboy publisher who never leaves his mansion in King of the Status Dropouts, or about carrier-based naval bomber pilots in The Truest Sport – Jousting with Sam and Charlie, Wolfe selected subjects which lend themselves to hyped-up language and improvised punctuation.

A crazy genius record producer, a crazy genius heavywieght who was always champion whether he held the title or not, a crazy job dodging surface-to-air missiles, the terrifying “flying telephone poles” which suddenly pop up through the clouds and come towards you.

If you are gonna push purple prose to its limits and beyond, these are the subjects you need. And that is 80% of Tom Wolfe’s’s genius : the things he chooses to write about.

The Right Stuff was his first whole book about one subject, astronauts, in 1979. His earlier books were collections of magazine pieces.

I remember reading Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, on holiday in Stoke Abbott, Dorset, in August 1989.

Bonfire was an Eighties satire featuring Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond-trader and socialite who is guilty of a hit-and-run accident.

Wolfe made sure you understood the milieu inhabited by his New York characters with sentences like :

The fiftieth floor was for people who weren’t afraid to take what they wanted.

and

There was no turning back. Once you had lived in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue it was impossible to live in a $1 million apartment!

A Man in Full was my Christmas reading for 1998.

The book is similar to Bonfire in that both feature multi-millionaires who stand to lose everything.

In chapter three he describes a heavy corporate meeting where his hero, Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real estate developer, is confronted by the work-out team at PannersBanc, led by Harry Zale, whose speciality is humiliating tycoons who cannot repay the phenomenal sums they have borrowed.

Croker owes the bank $515 million, and he is personally liable for $160 million of that, so the cruelty is cranked up to the max by Zale, who has a skull-and-crossbones motif on his braces.

This scene is a high-powered and hilarious set-piece which only Tom Wolfe could have written.

The book has 742 pages. Most chapters are set-pieces describing sub-cultures across Amerika’s social spectrum : a crack neighbourhood, the invisibility of divorced women, rap music, the mating of a racing stallion and mare on a stud farm, prison life including a horrific homosexual rape, a high society dinner to celebrate a gay painter, worker-slaves in a Californian freezer warehouse, illegal immigrants smuggled from Vietnam to work in a Georgia chicken factory.

The prose style is wild, penetrating, garrulous, overstated and repetitious. But Wolfe can be succinct. For example :

Your first wife married you for better or worse. Your second wife, particularly if you were sixty and she was a twenty-eight-year-old number like Serena – why kid yourself? – she married you for better.

A tremendous comic novel, A Man in Full tries to describe a continent. Bonfire was just about Manhattan.

Together the two fictions tell us a lot about what Americans were like towards the end of this millenium. They will still be read 50 years from now