Let me take the unseemly step of commencing a review of another author’s work by offering several paragraphs from my own book Cannibals and Christians, published in 1965.
The people who were most American by birth, and who had the most to do with managing America, gave themselves a literature which had the least to say about the real phenomena of American life, most particularly the accelerated rate, the awful rate, of growth and anomaly through all of society. That sort of literature and that sort of attempt to explain America was left to the sons of immigrants who, if they were vigorous enough, and fortunate enough to be educated, now had the opportunity to see that America was a phenomenon never before described, indeed, never before visible in the record of history. There was something going on in American life which was either grand or horrible or both, but it was going on—at a dizzy rate—and the future glory or doom of the world was not necessarily divorced from it…
No American writer succeeded, however, in doing the single great work that would clarify a nation’s vision of itself as Tolstoy had done perhaps with War and Peace or with Anna Karenina and Stendhal with The Red and the Black, no one novel came along which was grand and daring and comprehensive and detailed, able to give sustenance to the adventurer and merriment to the rich, leave compassion in the icechambers of the upper class and energy as alms for the poor. Dreiser came as close as any, and never got close at all, for he could not capture the moment, and no country in history has lived perhaps so much for the moment as America. After his heroic failure, American literature was isolated—it was necessary to give courses in American literature to Americans. [Otherwise] it was not quite vital to them. It did not save their lives, make them more ambitious, more moral, more tormented, more audacious, more ready for love, more ready for war, for charity, or for invention. No, it tended to puzzle them…. The American novel gave up any desire to be a creation equal to the phenomenon of the country itself. It settled for being a metaphor. Which is to say that each separate author made a separate peace. He would no longer try to capture America, he would merely try to give life to some microcosm of American life, some metaphor. The vision would be partial, determinedly so. One must not try to save. Not souls, and not the nation. The country be damned. Let it take care of itself.
And of course the country did. Just that. It grew by itself. Like a weed and a monster and a beauty and a pig. And the task of explaining America was taken over by Luce magazines.
Now, I have no idea whether Tom Wolfe ever came across this piece, but he didn’t have to. The Zeitgeist was there for all of us. In 1989, Wolfe wrote an article for Harper’s after the appearance of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I discovered (to my astonishment) that we were comrades in arms:
The introduction of realism into literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering. It was not just another device. The effect on the emotions of an everyday realism such as Richardson’s was something that had never been conceived of before. It was realism that created the “absorbing” or “gripping” quality that is peculiar to the novel, the quality that makes the reader feel that he has been pulled not only into the setting of the story but also into the minds and central nervous systems of the characters….
Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary….
My contention is that, especially in an age like this, [reporting is] essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve. In 1884, Zola went down into the mines at Anzin to do the documentation for what was to become the novel Germinal. Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat (this appeals to me for reasons I won’t delay you with), and carrying a notebook and pen….
At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim its literary property…. The answer is not to leave the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.
Of one thing I am sure. If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain, but also seized the high ground of literature itself….
America today, in a headlong rush of her own, may or may not truly need a literature worthy of her vastness. But American novelists, without any doubt, truly need, in this neurasthenic hour, the spirit to go along for that wild ride.
Three cheers. One has to applaud his moxie. Only an innocent or a simpleton could fail to recognize that a live hornet was being deposited in the crevice of every literary seat in town. If The Bonfire of the Vanities had excited envy and outrage, Wolfe was now upping the ante. It was the equivalent of a large raise in the World Series of Poker. Could he bring off the huge novel he was obviously suggesting, or was he riding on an outsize bluff?
Well, the years went by and Wolfe went through a quintuple heart by-pass and the towering depression that ensued. His writing life had to pass through some of the highs and lows of the exalted and the damned. It is not routine to bring off a long novel when your ambition is more than major, when you will settle for nothing less than an attempt to write a great novel, and when you are into your sixties and not all that well.
Given the stakes he set, the tension in reading A Man in Full never quite ceases. Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller?
Wolfe’s salient characteristic as a first novelist, the element that raised The Bonfire of the Vanities above all considerations of its merits and vices, was that it sold 750,000 copies in hardcover. The book was thereby emblazoned as the literary phenomenon of the Eighties. His finest literary impulses of that era and his pecuniary needs had come together. Naturally, it became somewhat more difficult to conceive of a major novel that would not also be a commercial blockbuster. The flavor of A Man in Full suggests a creator who is being obliged to live with a double motive.
Writing a best seller with conscious intent to do so is, after all, a state of mind that is not without comparison to the act of marrying for money, only to discover that the absence of love is more onerous than anticipated. When a putative and modest writer of best sellers finally becomes professional enough to write a winner, he or she thinks that a great feat has been brought off, even as a man void of love (and money) will see a wealthy marriage as a splendid union. The point, obviously, is that Tom Wolfe has, in advance, the talent to do either—embark on a major novel or calculate, nay, eyeball the musculature of a huge best seller. And so the real interest is in Wolfe’s search for the answer to his own deep question of motive. Is he to deal with major literary matters or adroit commercial counterfeits? The answer to the question vibrates back and forth in this work like a reed in a woodwind, keeping both possibilities alive—not only in each chapter, each page, but sometimes in the shift itself from good writing to cash-check writing in the same paragraph.
This much said, one has to add that A Man in Full is a much better book than The Bonfire of the Vanities. The earlier novel ran like an express for the first third of its pages, but by the middle, it was slowing up. At the end, it pissed out.
The beginning of A Man in Full is the reverse. It gets better as it goes. On the early stretch, you have to pay for endlessly detailed descriptions of every room you find yourself in (cataloguing rooms may yet prove to be Wolfe’s most ubiquitous talent). And for the first couple of hundred pages, most of the chapters are virtually separate short stories employing one or another group of characters. Some of these stories are very good indeed; some not worth reading. It takes a while to recognize that the real audacity of the book is in its architecture—Wolfe laid it out on three separate foundations, two of which are in Atlanta, our modern, post-Olympic Atlanta. We follow a mighty arriviste, Charlie Croker, a former great football player at Georgia Tech who has amassed a fortune in real estate by virtue of his overwhelming life force. Up from southern Georgia, a monument of a self-made man, Croker is in prodigious financial trouble without being quite aware of it, so confident is he of his outsize energy and strength. Soon enough his travails will begin and Wolfe takes him through an enforced descent over many hundreds of pages.
The second element of the novel follows the efforts of the black mayor of Atlanta and a black lawyer to solve a race problem that could result in riots and national humiliation for the city.
The last track takes us along on the odyssey of a sweet, decent young man named Conrad Hensley, who works in Oakland and eventually, after an unjust stint in prison (shades of Jean Valjean!), a most dramatic escape, and many ensuing exceptional adventures, arrives in Atlanta to bring a species of catharsis to the many turns and twists of the plot.
None of the above offers even a remote hint to the complexity of the scheme. For example, Atlanta, high society and low, lives in the book as vividly as did New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The difference is that Wolfe appreciates the complexities of Atlanta’s social issues with a subtlety that was absent from the earlier novel, and one of the surprising virtues of this second novel is how well he has captured the speech and airs and wit and sophistication of the black mayor and the upper-class anxieties of the black lawyer. Indeed, he is so sensitive to the nuances of their situation that it is as if he is making amends for the simple-minded outrage he exhibited against ghetto leaders in the first novel.