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A Man in Full Hardcover – November 12, 1998

3.5 out of 5 stars 1,001 customer reviews

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Ever since he published his classic 1972 essay "Why They Aren't Writing the Great American Novel Anymore," Tom Wolfe has made his fictional preferences loud and clear. For New Journalism's poster boy, minimalism is a wash, not to mention a failure of nerve. The real mission of the American writer is to produce fat novels of social observation--the sort of thing Balzac would be dishing up if he had made it into the Viagra era. Wolfe's manifesto would have had a hubristic ring if he hadn't actually delivered the goods in 1987 with The Bonfire of the Vanities. Now, more than a decade later, he's back with a second novel. Has the Man in White lived up to his own mission?

On many counts, the answer would have to be yes. Like its predecessor, A Man in Full is a big-canvas work, in which a multitude of characters seems to be ascending or (rapidly) descending the greasy pole of social life: "In an era like this one," a character reminds us, "the twentieth century's fin de siècle, position was everything, and it was the hardest thing to get." Wolfe has changed terrain on us, to be sure. Instead of New York, the focus here is Atlanta, Georgia, where the struggle for turf and power is at least slightly patinated with Deep South gentility. The plot revolves around Charlie Croker, an egomaniacal good ol' boy with a crumbling real-estate empire on his hands. But Wolfe is no less attentive to a pair of supporting players: a downwardly mobile family man, Conrad Hensley, and Roger White II, an African American attorney at a white-shoe firm. What ultimately causes these subplots to converge--and threatens to ignite a racial firestorm in Atlanta--is the alleged rape of a society deb by Georgia Tech football star Fareek "The Cannon" Fanon.

Of course, a detailed plot summary would be about as long as your average minimalist novel. Suffice it to say that A Man in Full is packed with the sort of splendid set pieces we've come to expect from Wolfe. A quail hunt on Charlie's 29,000-acre plantation, a stuffed-shirt evening at the symphony, a politically loaded press conference--the author assembles these scenes with contagious delight. The book is also very, very funny. The law firms, like upper-crust powerhouse Fogg Nackers Rendering & Lean, are straight out of Dickens, and Wolfe brings even his minor characters, like professional hick Opey McCorkle, to vivid life:

In true Opey McCorkle fashion he had turned up for dinner wearing a plaid shirt, a plaid necktie, red felt suspenders, and a big old leather belt that went around his potbelly like something could hitch up a mule with, but for now he had cut off his usual torrent of orotund rhetoric mixed with Baker Countyisms.
Readers in search of a kinder, gentler Wolfe may well be disappointed. Retaining the satirist's (necessary) superiority to his subject, he tends to lose his edge precisely when he's trying to move us. Still, when it comes to maximalist portraiture of the American scene--and to sheer, sentence-by-sentence amusement--1998 looks to be the year of the Wolfe, indeed. --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

However the National Book Award judges managed to get hold of Wolfe's much-delayed second novel in time to give it their nod as an NBA finalist, they were quite right to do so. It's a dazzling performance, offering a panoramic vision of America at the end of the 20th century that ranges with deceptive ease over our economic, political and racial hang-ups and at the same time maintains a brisk narrative pace that makes the huge book seem only a quarter of its real length. Balzac had the same gift. The "man in full" of the title (the phrase comes from an old song) is Charlie Croker, a good-ole-boy real-estate developer in Atlanta whose sprawling South Georgia plantation, massive mansion in the best part of town, half-empty skyscraper tower named after himself, horde of servants, fleet of jets and free-spending trophy second wife have left him terribly vulnerable to bankers deciding the party's over. As a former football star, however, the suggestion is put to him that there is something he can do to ease his situation. A black Georgia Tech player clearly headed for greatness may have raped the daughter of one of Charlie's old business buddies. If Charlie can help the city's ambitious black mayor maintain calm, the bank just might be persuaded to ease up on him. Three thousand miles away in California, Conrad Hensley, an idealistic young worker at a warehouse run by one of Charlie's subsidiary companies, fired in an offhand downsizing designed to placate the bank, runs afoul of the law in a farcical parking hassle and is thrown in jail. There, in fear of his life, Conrad absorbs Stoic philosophy from a book his wife has sent him, and, aided by a timely earthquake (sent by Zeus?), begins to turn his life around until the day, in exile in Atlanta, he encounters Charlie. These parallel plot lines, examining with microscopic precision the obsessions, preoccupations, habits and lingo of life at the top and bottom of American society, are both compelling in themselves and resonant with a sense of the vast mystery and comedy of contemporary life in this amazing country. Wolfe is as adept at scenes painted with high satirical glee (Charlie on a quail hunt, or introducing shrinking business guests to an all-out stud performance by a prize racehorse) as he is with horror and pity (his picture of life for Conrad in his California jail is almost unbearably intense). Despite the very occasional longeurs (readers learns more Atlanta geography than they may care to) and writerly tics (Wolfe still can't resist onomatopoetic outbursts), the novel is a major advance on The Bonfire of the Vanities in its range, power and compassion, while retaining all of that book's breathless contemporaneity and readability. 1.2 million firt printing; simultanneous audio from BDD.(Nov 6).
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 742 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (November 12, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374270325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374270322
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,001 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #140,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback
Though I haven't had time to read all 805 previous reviews, my brief survey of them alerted me to the surprising fact that most readers took Charlie Croker, the big Atlanta businessman, to be the protagonist of this book. And if you think that, then no wonder if you're not satisfied with the story! Perhaps, in some barebones technical literary sense, Charlie Croker is the main character of the book. He is introduced on the first page; he gets more column inches, or whatever the equivalent is in book format; he is rich, powerful, important, and a large part of the storyline revolves around the changes in his fortune and the way he copes with them, or fails to. But if you let those things fool you into thinking that A Man in Full is primarily "about" Charlie Croker, then you have not only missed the whole point of the story, but made yourself an example of the very commentary Wolfe is trying to drive home.
The true protagonist - or I should better say, the hero (and most certainly the referent of the title) - of this book is Conrad Hensley, the underdog family man who works in one of Croker's frozen food warehouses, undergoes a long series of unlikely adventures, and accidentally discovers the ancient Stoic religion, which becomes his salvation. The whole point of Stoicism is that it doesn't matter who you are socially, what you have, or what people think of you. All that really matters is what you alone can control: your own emotional/mental/spiritual state. Happiness lies in not letting yourself be controlled by externals. Let go of your attachments to them - accept that they are beyond your control - and nothing can touch you. This is what it means to be a true man, and in the book it is Conrad, not Croker, who achieves this ideal.
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Format: Paperback
Tom Wolfe is praised as a brilliant social novelist and I don't read enough of that type of novel to comment on the success of A Man in Full. I have read Bonfire of the Vanities and now this book, and I found them both to be quite enjoyable. A Man in Full is similar to Bonfire with sprawling chapters full of thoughts and descriptions of the main characters. This book is set in Atlanta, where Charlie Croker is an aging real estate developer and former football star. Croker's financial empire is on the verge of collapse and his personal life isn't going to well either.

As with Bonfire, Wolfe writes about the polically connected, race politics and the very wealthy. Charlie Croker and friends judge others based on the amount of money they have and the material possessions they own. Using this criteria to judge others is obviously foolish to all except the most materialistic. Except for Conrad Hensley, the Croker employee arrested for assault, the poorest main character is a banker named Peepgas who has a Harvard MBA and makes $120,000 a year. Needless to say, the social arena Wolfe writes about is above that of most readers. That doesn't mean the book isn't entertaining. I enjoyed all of the characters and their interaction.

When an all-American African American football player at Georgia Tech is suspected of rape, racial tension threatens to destroy Atlanta. Croker is about to lose all his possessions to his creditors and his sexy wife half his age isn't too thrilled about it. Roger White is the black lawyer called on by the black mayor to see if he can get the crusty old Croker to speak out. Conrad Hensley is the Croker employee who is fired then thrown in jail. All the plots slowly converge. This book isn't about action, its about characters.
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Format: Hardcover
Reading this novel is like spending three incredible days on a challenging, technical mountain climb -- only to fall off a cliff 10 feet below the summit.
Where is the last half of this book? Did Wolfe lose interest? Did the publishers balk at a 1,500-page novel? Did the printers forget to bind the final five chapters? For an author who spends 15 pages describing in excruciating detail two horses breeding to end this complex novel with a three page "conclusion," "Uh... and everything worked out for everyone and life was good. The end." is simply baffling. This novel ends with more loose ends than your granny's shawl.
That said, the journey to this unfortunate end was an enjoyable one -- I couldn't put the book down. Sure, the characters may have been a bit cliched and two-dimensional, but they were quite entertaining and, like it or not, probably a lot closer to reality than most of us would care to admit.
A few quibbles: While he tried valiantly, Mr. Wolfe is obviously not in touch with youth culture, and his attempts at prison dialogue and "rap" lyrics were often downright excruciating. A rapper named Doctor Rammer Doc Doc? Pu-lease! And if I heard the term "peel yo cap," "jookin'" or worse, "shanks akimbo," one more time, this thing would been forced down the shredder post-haste.
All in all, a compelling, entertaining and detailed look at contemporary American society and the male animal with a criminally terse conclusion.
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