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