The major surprise in the book, however, is the young protagonist who emerges, the starry-eyed, innocent, honorable working man, Conrad Hensley. He is married (somewhat unhappily) and living out in the Oakland area, where he labors in a frozen-food warehouse owned by no one less than the man in full, Charlie Croker. It takes literally half the tome for the separate sections to start coming together and a good many readers may never make it to the middle. Too bad! For when the book starts to collect, Wolfe suddenly becomes startlingly good. All of a sudden you don’t want to stop. And on you go for a couple of hundred most enjoyable narrative pages with some fine feats of writing en route. Many problems have, of course, also accumulated, and by the end, Wolfe succumbs to too many quick solutions as the elements of plot come crowding in together. The end of the book is a mess, a tidy mess (which makes it worse), and it ends as badly as Dickens, who, at his lowest, would cash in his hand, offers sweet remarks, and get out the door. Are we ready to cite A Christmas Carol?
Most of the ending is too complicated to summarize in less time than it took Wolfe to tell it, but one termination takes place through Charlie Croker, who has hitherto and for the bulk of the book been a totally dependable stock character despite his heavy sufferings. Toward the end, having landed in a weighty depression, he is extracted only and uniquely by Conrad Hensley, who encourages him (by way of the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus) to become an honest man. Yet, Charlie is not even present in the last chapter. It is an epilogue, and he is only there through hearsay. We learn that he is on the road and has become a minister in Florida, out in the mangrove roots preaching the maxims of Epictetus. So just as Charlie shows signs finally of becoming interesting (and difficult to write about), he is relegated to a short paragraph. Another paragraph, also hearsay, takes care of Conrad, who decides to turn himself in and go back to jail, but is put on probation by a kindly judge. Good novels are being lost on every page of the epilogue.
Be it said. The book has gas and runs out of gas, fills up again, goes dry. It is a 742-page work that reads as if it is fifteen hundred pages long. This is, to a degree, a compliment, since it is very rich in material. But, given its high intentions, it is also tiresome, for it takes us down the road of too many overlong and predictable scenes. Electric at best, banal at worst—banal like a long afternoon spent watching soap operas—one picks it up each day to read another hundred pages with the sense that the book not only offers pleasure but the strain of encountering prose that disappoints as often as it titillates.
At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated. So you read and you grab and you even find delight in some of these mounds of material. Yet all the while you resist—how you resist!—letting three hundred pounds take you over.
After a time, I simply began to groan within each time there was a new description. It was not that they were badly written. Taken on its own, the tenth description was as good and certainly as detailed as the first, but quantity, as Engels once remarked, changes quality. Finally, the descriptions became not unequal to a politician declaring: “I gave my stump speech ten times last night, and the tenth was as good as the first.” Repetition kills the soul, and the narrative élan of Wolfe’s novel is injured by the sheer quantity of his descriptions. They convert a stylistic virtue into a vice, then lock us up in an addiction. It is dispiriting to witness. A pall comes over one’s happy attention when a brilliant conversationalist turns into a monologuist, only to deaden us further by revealing the true passion—logorrhea.
So much is there, so much is missing. How then does one pass clear judgment on a novel that is as rich and as poor, as genuinely exciting and as seriously disappointing, as observant and blind, as brilliantly written and as slovenly in its final execution as A Man in Full? It is Tom Wolfe’s best book by far, it begins to promise that he is ready to become a great American novelist, and then it loses its air and settles (with all the canniness of a hard-nosed business judgment) for being a Mega-bestseller. At the highest level, it’s a failure—at a more modest plateau (which is to say, at the corrupt level), it is bound to prove a resounding success with its large popular merits.
Some might now assume that the judgment has just been rendered. Not so. Only the lineaments. The body of the judgment still eludes one—how can a book be so good and so empty all at once, able to tell us so much about America at its best and be so criminally flawed at its worst?
What is bound to create an ongoing argument over the objective merits of this book is that for all of its major faults, it has undeniable major virtues of which the most notable are the set pieces. Every defender of the book will end with his favorite episodes and chapters, but there will probably be a consensus on the inquisition of Charlie Croker by his creditors at the PlannersBanc, the mating of the thoroughbred horses at his plantation, his barehanded capture of a six-foot rattlesnake there, and the “Freaknic” celebration of black college students in Atlanta, as well as the first meeting between the two top-level black principals, Roger Too White and the mayor Wes Jordan. Most particularly, the hundred pages of writing about Conrad Hensley in prison and escaping from prison light the book up in the middle. Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer. How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great—his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.
Perhaps there is good reason for this. His strategy, when in doubt, is to cook up new ingredients and excursions for his plot. He relies on this to such a degree that we can perceive all over again the vices of plot.
For plot is equal to a drug. It can stimulate a novelist into hordes of narrative energy, and it certainly will keep a reader on the page, but, sooner or later, plot presents its bill, and dire exigencies come down upon the writer. Even one’s best characters have to be ratcheted away from believability. Wolfe has resources to attempt to offset this, and the first is dialogue. Indeed, he often succeeds in getting you to believe an improbable reaction by the speed and color of the dialogue—particularly among his black and ethnic characters. He manages thereby to take them around the trickiest corners. If, however, the scene finally fails to produce enough credible turns to convince us of their inner conversion, why then a harsh novelistic law comes into force. Since motivation has to be believable in a serious novel, the writer burdened with a plot is sometimes obliged to enter the character’s mind.
Right here is where Wolfe bogs down. How it costs him! A reader’s confidence in what he is reading will be subtly betrayed or even squandered should a novelist choose to enter the mind of a character but fail to bequeath the indispensable gift, that the reader can now know more about the character than before. The internal monologues of Wolfe’s people are surprisingly routine and insist on telling us what we know already. There is almost no signature quality of mind.
For one instance—there are many—we have been provided with a detailed catalog of Charlie Croker’s fall. We are living in the depths of his depression, brought there by the novelist’s adroit and serial presentations of surrendered hopes, new blows, and obsessive dilemmas. We know in detail how Charlie must feel. Nonetheless, we are given the following soliloquy:
He was precisely where he had dreamed of being as a young man: living in a mansion in Buckhead, the master builder of metro Atlanta, creator of a gleaming tower named after himself, a man whose footsteps made the halls of the mighty vibrate…and how hollow it all was! It meant only that when your egomania and the defects in your character finally plunged you into ruin, your collapse would provoke more and tastier gloating. That would be it! They’d chuckle, rub their hands together, and smack their lips—and that would be the great Charlie Croker’s entire legacy. What a fraud he was!—sitting here in his oxblood leather throne as if any of it were still…his…Why couldn’t he put an end to it all by…disintegrating, by smashing, by walking out into the woods and never coming back?…Oh sure…With his knee, he’d be lucky to walk a hundred yards…
If there is nothing splendid or new right there, Wolfe can console himself with the alternative: the internal ruminations of the characters in most Mega-bestsellers are about what you would expect. Mega-bestseller readers want to be able to read and read and read—they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading.
Nonetheless, this formulation is too severe. Sometimes Wolfe is ready to work for his best characters, sometimes they can surprise us as they move from caricatures into literary reality. It is just that at other times he is all too ready to let them work for him, and moves them back from the possibility of deeper characterization into caricature again. How can he not when plot obviously appeals to him more than the real complexity of men and women? Worse, he appears incapable of creating a vital and interesting woman. He couldn’t do it in The Bonfire of the Vanities and certainly doesn’t here. If all we knew about wives, for example, were to come from Tom Wolfe, we would have to assume that they are without soul, and their greatest strength is to nag.
Perhaps he could do more. Wolfe is not incapable of describing carnality. To the contrary—no one will ever be the same after reading his set piece on the massive copulation of a prize stallion with a thoroughbred mare (after she has been readied for this momentous event by the lucubrations produced in her by the mouth and nose of a third horse, Sad Sam!). Wonders might befall us if Wolfe were ready to make the transition from Equus to Anthropos, but as of now, one has to complain that in neither of his two novels is there a carnal relationship that will give the reader any new sense of what it is all about.