It is his right as a novelist to ignore such stuff, but he ignores too many other possibilities as well. If only he would work half as hard on his characters as on the social gears and levers of his story. Dispirit hangs over him, however, when he is alone with his protagonists exactly as if they were isolated in a room and he doesn’t know what to say or what they might be ready to offer him.
A harsh verdict ensues. It is not only the women who are weak. Once we read these interior monologues, we come to realize that Wolfe doesn’t begin to understand enough about his two main male characters. We are not given one moment in Charlie Croker’s mind that tries to capture his inner life as an athlete. Football has to be the center of his personality, his feats in college have shot him into orbit, but the only way we know that Croker played football is because we are told he did. And once when he does talk about a great play he made, he describes it about the way a sports reporter might, which is to say, from the outside.
Conrad’s part of the story, as already stated, is far and away the most readable and the most virtuoso element throughout the length of the prison and escape scenes. Unfortunately, these episodes are not quite believable. Prison is a culture, and you violate its canons at your peril. Wolfe poses a question: How is a young, good-looking prisoner to endure when he belongs to no clique and will not submit to becoming a playmate? Wolfe, in the obligatory showdown, uses a martial war trick. Conrad Hensley has powerful hands and forearms from toting eighty-pound cartons of frozen chickens around in the Croker Global warehouse. So when he is sounded by a prison wolf named Rotto (who has a build like a WWF wrestler), he grabs the monster’s hand with both his hands and crushes the man’s fingers, breaks his wrist. There is no recognition that there are magnum responses available to Rotto, who, after all, is a weathered con who has lived for years with the arts and tricks of dirty fighting. At the least, Rotto could whack Conrad with his free fist, or wrap his forearm around Conrad’s windpipe, or knee him in the groin. Whatever! Cons live as close to martial response as Shakespeare scholars to the variant texts.
Nonetheless, Conrad wins an uncontested battle from a man much stronger and more combat-seasoned than himself. That night he lies in terror on his bunk. Rotto is the head of a clique, and the clique will hardly let Conrad get away with it. Yes, his honor and his sphincter are still in deadly peril.
Wolfe is not a classicist for too little. He employs a deus ex machina. The mightiest of California earthquakes commences. Prison cells break apart, prison walls crash open, and Conrad (after a very nice piece of action writing) manages to escape. The ducks all fall into line and a friend whose life he saved once in the ice-cold warehouse takes care of getting him out of town. From Oakland to Atlanta. Lo! The book comes together. Conrad, lowly worker out in Oakland in Charlie Croker’s ice-cold warehouse, will hook up with his old and hitherto invisible boss, and will do it well enough and close enough to yet save Charlie’s life now that Charlie is in a terminal depression. In the course of enabling the two principals to meet, a highly improbable set of twists and turns conducts Conrad through several sub-worlds (Vietnamese boat-folk and poor genteel whites among others). Yet here Wolfe is at his best. He is wonderful at capturing the English of Vietnamese illegals (as he is also for Pakistanis, Hawaiians, ghetto blacks, down-home Georgians). Indeed, he is so good on such matters that you forgive the phony combat, the earthquake that solves all pressing auctorial problems, the convenient underground railroad of the story line—you accept it as Dickensian to the max! Wolfe is only in trouble when he has to slow down and allow his characters to react with one another, to enter—perish the outrageous requirement—a relationship.
Then, even his dialogue, so full of snap, crackle, and pop whenever embattled experts are expounding on a touchy situation (as, for example, the executives at PlannersBanc in the course of giving Charlie Croker a psychic workout over the abominable condition of his loan), alters into speech that is singularly flat as soon as husbands and wives are in battle mode. Whether it is Charlie Croker’s new trophy wife, Conrad Hensley’s young disgruntled wife, Roger Too White’s near-invisible wife, or the cantankerous former wife of Raymond Peepgass (an executive at PlannersBanc), they all sound the same. The dialogue reads as if it had been written by a hack turning out scripts for the afternoon soaps.
In part, that may be true because Wolfe’s inclination is usually to return to what he sees as the iron hand of society. Martha Croker, Charlie’s ex-wife, is ignored totally by all their old friends once she is divorced from Charlie. While this kind of quiet ostracism is true enough generally—Charlie, after all, has provided the action for their friends—surely it is not as absolute as here portrayed. If the Crokers had a hundred social friends, might we assume ten of that number would have remained loyal to Martha, ten anyway, unless Martha was a monster—which she is not? Society is powerful precisely because its unwritten laws weigh upon us heavily enough to be palpable. But the laws are not absolute—if they were, the less endowed party in a marriage would never allow himself or herself to agree to divorce.
This small vice in Wolfe—to go, when in doubt, for the exaggerated note—was the ultimate reason why The Bonfire of the Vanities self-destructed by its end. It certainly injures A Man in Full. How difficult it becomes, for another example, to believe in the moral dilemma that the plot presents to Charlie Croker. Wolfe places him in a position where Croker has to defend a black All-American Georgia Tech football player against a rape charge. But such a defense would require Charlie to betray his close friend, Inman Armholster, who comes from one of the most established families in Atlanta. Inman’s daughter is the alleged rape victim, and Charlie has promised that he will stand by him any way he can. The black mayor of Atlanta, meanwhile, has come to decide that this rape case, if it ever breaks into the media, would not only sully Atlanta’s image nationally, but would probably incite serious riots. Ergo, he needs someone like a former great white athlete from Georgia Tech to stand up in public for the black star. In return, the mayor will convince PlannersBanc to radically restructure Charlie’s half-billion dollars of debt. How can the mayor put such pressure on a huge bank? Well, the mayor has tools, never quite defined to a nicety, that he can use to twist the bank around. So Charlie is now presented with a moral dilemma. It comes near to destroying him. Is he ready to give away to the bank his mansion, his plantation, his Croker Global high-rise, his food warehouses, his private airplanes, and all the other installations of his accumulated fortune, or does he save them by betraying his friend Inman Armholster? We are back to the alexandrines of Racine: Love versus Honor.
Wolfe, however, doesn’t get into the real complexities of this moral confrontation. He can be most insightful about the back-and-forth maneuverings of bank managers, but the dilemma upon which the moral heart of his book is based never receives close examination. At one point we are told that Inman is Charlie’s closest friend. It comes as a surprise. Up to that point, we have been given the impression that Charlie doesn’t even like Inman much. We have no idea what makes them friends other than their social propinquity.
Betrayal, however, is no more than a concept unless we know exactly what is being betrayed. We have to feel the antennae of the relationship that is soon to be cauterized. Nor are we prepared for Charlie to feel such responsibility. After all, how did he make his fortune in the first place? Did he betray no close friends on the way up to high wealth? That alone would make him one incredible rich man. In real life, when a tycoon comes to a point where he cannot betray a friend no matter how much money is involved, we have to assume that the sum of his former betrayals has caught up with him. The tycoon is in revolt against his own misdeeds. That is not impossible. Fear of the grave has done as much to many a bucko. But there is nothing of such suggestion in Charlie. He is just a powerful good guy who is so proud of his own strength that, as far as we know, he never cut a dirty deal. For moral dilemmas of this vast size, we need Dreiser, rather than our Tom with his outsize moxie. Moral dilemmas that live only in the pure light of dilemma belong to best sellers where the readers want their moral conflicts standing clean and proud, ready to be resolved. That, of course, Wolfe is ready to provide.
DeLillo’s Underworld is also full of moral choices, and one of them is between love and honor, but with a notable and salutary difference. The moral dilemmas become part of the mix of the details, projects, confusions, and contradictions that suffuse the lives of his characters.
Where, then, might be the root of Wolfe’s faults? Can one say that his strength as a journalist contributes to his weakness as a novelist? It is likely. He was so good as a young reporter that he was promoted to feature writer. But even in the upper reaches of feature writing, you still move on quickly to another subject, another set of people. So you do not form those novelistic habits that are learned best when you are young, exactly the need never to be satisfied with any of your characters just because they have come alive for you on the page. Indeed, the intoxication of creating a person on a page can prove blinding to an untried author’s vision of what the character is going to need in his or her development through the narrative. What the young novelist learns, and it can take half a life, is that it is much easier to create a character than to understand a real man or woman. So an inner caution develops. Unless your literary figures keep growing through the events of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you. Because if the character comes alive on one particular note and stays alive on that note, then there is nowhere to proceed but into the plot.
Part of the problem for feature writers is that they have to bring to life the figures they write about, and must not only do it in a few days or a few weeks but be sharp in every sentence and entertaining (if possible), and then on the next assignment they move on to another person in another occupation. Tom Wolfe became the best of them when it came to capturing the off-edge of each person’s dialogue and all the details of their shoes, asses, hairdos, and stomach rumblings. He saw a room in the way a shark sees prey. Details were ectoplasm to him and luminescence.
He worked for years doing bigger and better articles, then books, high-octane books, but he had formed bad habits. The basic pattern was to go right into new material, bring it off, and move on to the next job. Your characters had to come alive, but since you didn’t stay with them, you hardly needed a second note. Johnny One-Note, if he is vivid enough, can always hold the reader for the length of a magazine piece.
Of course, a great many of Dickens’s characters were also Johnny One-Notes. Yet, what notes! Besides, one did not read at that time to explore into character in the way we feel is necessary today. The stakes are higher now. Given this century, so full of vast achievements and horrors, it is viscerally important that our understanding of men and women keep pace with the mechanisms of society. If Wolfe is as good as or better than any other American writer in his power to capture the surface of wholly diverse elements in America, he comes in last of all major American writers when it’s a matter of comprehending a little more about men and women. Indeed, this may be the most important and noble purpose of the novelist today. Surely, we are not going to leave it to the jargon-ridden expertise of the oral guns for hire in the TV human relations media business, or the fundamentalists’ search for the all-purpose power-grip over other humans. We need only contemplate one more time how for the last nine months we have been steeped in a nausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night. In parallel, Wolfe is too quick to capture his characters and then doesn’t always have an idea of what to do with them. He spent his early professional life writing too quickly and moving on. The following passage, which comes just after the earthquake has liberated Conrad from jail, may be appropriate here.
The very floor of the world had moved…with a power that still resonated in the bones of everyone who had been through the upheaval. A cliff now ran straight through Santa Rita where none had existed before. A new wave of fear and hopelessness swept Conrad’s nervous system. He felt as if the very last roots of his past had been ripped out. Zeus had done all this and he was in Zeus’ hands. He gave Five-O one last smile and a little wave and then began running alongside the escarpment, away from the remains of West Greystone.
The longer one reads A Man in Full, the more one comes to decide that no matter its large virtues, it was chosen by the author to be a best seller rather than a major novel. Nowhere is this more evident than with the younger protagonist. I can believe that there are people as angelic as Conrad Hensley, and most of us have known a few men who were as heroic as Conrad, but never before have I seen both those qualities in one person—not unless I was looking at a movie.
It was Wolfe’s job to transcend the film of A Man in Full before it went into production—which is to say his literary purpose was to make us believe on the page, now, that Conrad exists. And in this he is far from wholly successful. Conrad is too good to be true. What one can know with a sense of sadness as a novelist is that Conrad will become much more believable and moving in the movie. Will it be Matt Damon? Or can Tom Hanks still look young enough to bail out the part?
But if we as readers are to be lectured by Wolfe, via Epictetus, on the honorable avoidance of shame that can and has to be achieved by the serious Stoic, then what is to be said about the shame of writing a best seller when you are as talented as Wolfe and might at least have tried to bring off one of the most important books of the half-century?
Can we offer a final verdict? Tom may be the hardest-working showoff the literary world has ever owned. But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers—he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that. So, he will be king for a year, a year at least, and then in another ten years or less he will write another gargantuan best seller. Let us hope it is not about education but will be called A President in Full. For he is certainly the most gifted best-seller writer to come along since Margaret Mitchell. If her style was banal, she understood nonetheless how signally perverse is the sense of romance in rich and beautiful women, and Mr. Wolfe is not up to that yet.
If this verdict denies him the long-term glory he seeks, let it at least be said that his adjuration to his fel-low novelists to go out and dig harder for objective material may, given a whopping bounty in the bookstores for A Man in Full, may, yes, actually take root. If it does, let us novelists at least attempt to take back delineation of our country from the media who have held it too long and for much too little.