God and Man in Full.
FARRAR STRAUS & GIROUX. 742 PAGES. $31.00
Among the A-list big dogs of chic fiction, Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full is not da bomb. Of course, there's vulgar success against it -- cover of Time, phone number first printing. Nothing ills the cool like being hot, except on the rare occasions when it happens to them. But novels by Clancy or Grisham usually pass beneath notice of the critical hepcats. A Man in Full didn't. Doyen of American letters-a-go-go, John Updike, dissed the text in that edgy journal the New Yorker. "Amounts to entertainment, not literature," sniffed the man who inked The Witches of Eastwick. Perennially def and slammin' Norman Mailer gave Wolfe a buzz kill in the fashion-forward New York Review of Books. "Chosen by the author to be a best seller rather than a major novel," slagged the caption-writer for Marilyn, An Appreciation. And then there was James Wood (so dope, so phat) in the New Republic (it's fresh, it's stylin'): "this bumptious simplicity, this toy-set of literary codes essentially indistinguishable from the narrative techniques of boys' comics." Jim, that's cold.
But there is, in fact, every reason for A Man in Full to be unfashionable. Big, sweeping social realism with themes of honor, duty, sin, and belief went out with honor, duty, sin, belief, and the big sweeping societies that had them. Wolfe has written an encomium of the passe, praising hope, reason, self-restraint, custom, shame, good taste, first marriages, and Booker T. Washington. His novel tells the story of failing real estate developer Charlie Croker, who is not only a moss-back personally, but is also that out-moded item, a protagonist who shows character development. This naff and antiquated progress is fostered by an escapee from unjust imprisonment, Conrad Hensley. He is a hero, a species long ago hunted to extinction in literary fiction. Of Hensley, Wolfe says -- heaping back-number Pelion upon moldy Ossa -- "To lead the bourgeois life was to be obsessed with order, moral rectitude, courtesy, cooperation, education, financial success, comfort, respectability, pride in one's offspring, and, above all, domestic tranquillity. To Conrad it sounded like heaven." And there's not one stylish sex scene in the book.
Tom Wolfe uses (what a fossil!) layers of symbolism and allegory. The name Conrad means "bold counselor." The Man of the title is a Charles ("manly") and a Croker because he's coarse. (A burlap bag is a "croker sack" in the South.) Plus Charles is a "croaker" since his manly identity is dying and also a "croaker" in that he becomes a sort of philosophical doc. Charlie's second wife, the epicurian Serena, believes, like Epicurus with his serenity, "that everything that's sweet in this life ends when we die." An assimilated black is called Roger White. If that's not enough, Roger ("spearman") tries to shaft Charlie. And so on, in the most old-hat way, with nearly every moniker in the book.
And Wolfe's cornball allegiance to the Western canon must leave the with-it agape. A Man in Full has, per John Winthrop, its City upon a Hill (or its suburb, Buckhart, anyway). The Atlanta metropolitan area is Gibbon's Rome as well. There is the college football gladiator Fareek Fanon. (We who are about to sign sneaker endorsements salute you.) There is a (more or less) martyred (more or less) virgin sacrificed to Fareek's date-rape whims. There's bread (get-out-the-vote money) and circuses (the voting). The Bible comes into it, too, with a Tower of Babel at the PlannersBanc building and walls of Jericho around the Santa Rita Correction Center. Hundreds of other dead white guy allusions are made, such as references to Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now that reviewers were too up-to-date to catch. For the intellectually a la mode, A Man in Full is a regular Squaresville Great Books course out of some L-7 ivy hive like Washington and Lee circa early 1950s.
But it's badder than that. A Man in Full gives such offense to modish sensibilities that the modish haven't yet fully realized how offended they should be. While Wolfe is unfashionable in his method and scope, his real topic is so outre it can hardly be mentioned in polite society. A Man in Full is about church.
John Updike did notice that "the novel turns out to be all about religion." But then Updike claims, "In a post-Christian world, Wolfe offers us . . . the nobility of Stoicism." Which is nonsense. The first thing that Conrad Hensley does, after deciding he's a stoic, is violate the tenets of stoicism with an act of Christian charity. And religion, in a denominational sense, is just a tag in the book, little more indicative of creed than an Armani label: "he was Jewish, which in Georgia meant that your paths weren't going to cross socially all that much." Nor is this a novel about blinding satori insights, born-again dramas, finding God out-of-body or inside self, or about any of the other spiritual slop that might make the theme acceptable to moderns -- moderns whom Wolfe sums up in his description of Conrad's hippie mother, "a very pretty, sweet, sentimental, but terribly lax soul." Man in Full is about go-to-church church, about Sunday best, Sunday school, Sunday manners, Sunday dinner church. Get me to the church on time church. Church with convictions as deep and resonant as the snores during the sermon. Church with 2,000 years of loud in the hymns, quiet in the pews, $5 in the collection plate, and a big breakfast when we get home. A taken for granted, foregone conclusion church about which little need be said. And Tom Wolfe speaks for this church by saying little about it.
Church is central in its absence from A Man in Full. Fashionable Atlantans are seen in every kind of social gathering except the kind where they're scrubbed and sober and fumbling in the hymnal for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." They don't disparage church. They wouldn't bother. In the one passage where Charlie Croker might be criticizing organized religion, where he's thinking about an institution that "had been the center of the most important network in the city" but now is "filled with old people who didn't mean much one way or another," he is referring to the Piedmont Driving Club.
Unfashionable Atlantans go to church -- Roger White, for example, the African-American who (and what could be more unfashionable?) loves Western culture. The declasse go to church. Conrad Hensley rents a room from the fat, old, tooth-absent Munger siblings and they ask him, "You go to church?" Stoic Conrad replies, "I go to the church of Zeus."
"Sister'n'me's Methodists," says his landlord.
And the lumpen proletariat goes to church, in the ghetto, with the Reverend Isaac Blakey at the Church of the Sheltering Arms.
But the church-going isn't going well, even with the church-goers. The Rev. Blakey and his parishioners have been tempted in the wilderness of political activism and are praying to give Caesar what is Caesar's -- right in the kisser. Roger White recalls the fancy altar goods and abstract stained glass in his own Uptown church and thinks that his minister father "would have seen all this for what it was: an attempt to look high-class." And the Mungers run an over-stuffed junk shop with the sadly resurrectional name, "Hello, Again." The scripture says, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth," let alone junk.
People who don't know what they should be doing -- which in A Man in Full is all of them -- wander outside the bounds of traditional piety seeking answers in the gym, the hospital, the ballot box, the bottle; in press conferences, art shows, the Piedmont Driving Club, and, indeed, in the colloquies of Epictetus. So ignorant is Conrad Hensley of, well, Jesus, for instance, that Conrad thinks of Epictetus as the only philosopher "who had been stripped of everything, imprisoned, tortured . . . threatened with death."
However, to imagine that Wolfe is positing a pagan, or as Updike would have it "post-Christian," world is to miss what the author's been up to. By studying Epictetus, Conrad and Charlie are able to find a decent, if dour, system of ethics. But Wolfe is careful in his choice of stoics. He doesn't pick the 4th century b.c. founder, Zeno, who perforce had no exposure to Christianity, nor the Christian-persecuting Marcus Aurelius, whose prose would have made for better citation. He selects instead the stoic who lived at the beginning of the Christian era and who was the slave of a freedman of Nero, the emperor who crucified St. Peter. Epictetus was the most spiritual of the stoics and his sayings imply monotheism. Yet Wolfe substitutes "Zeus" for "god" when Epictetus is quoted, thus emphasizing the differences between the good beliefs of stoicism and the better beliefs of the -- with apology to the author -- right stuff. here's no attempt to improve on that stuff. Wolfe is hardly a Walk Toward the Light new age sage, or latter-day prophet either. Maybe Charlie Crocker and Conrad Hensley are meant to be Christ figures in their trials, punishments, and rebirths -- Conrad is even joked about as "Messenger Connie, who'll soon be returning to Earth from wherever." But that "wherever" is a semi-detached home with the missus and the kids. And Charlie is "about to sign a syndication deal with Fox Broadcasting." These are Christ figures who are wholly inadequate, as well they should be since Christ exists already. Possible anti-Christs are even less impressive. Mute, stupid, merchandising-minded Fareek Fanon? Whore of Babylon Serena who, by book's end, is just one more single mom? The race-baiting politician, Andre "Balq" Fleet, winds up unelected. The sin-relishing banker, Raymond Peepgrass, finishes as a trophy husband.
A Man in Full, whose millennial time-frame goes pointedly unmentioned, is no updated Book of Revelations. Although Wolfe does create an evil double to a house of worship, "right across the street from the First Presbyterian Church." This is the basilica of au courant art, the High Museum. Writes Wolfe, "The museum was fiercely different from the church. The church, built in 1919, was a stately, dark, and stony neo-Gothic pile. The museum, built in 1983, was pure white and modern in the Corbusier mode." "Looks like an insecticide refinery," says Atlanta's black, and presumably church-going, mayor.
Wolfe fills the museum with an exhibit of obscene paintings, has a sermon preached upon them by an advocate of that devil Michel Foucault, and puts the whole of swank Atlanta in the opening night dinner congregation, including a Baptist deacon. "A Baptist deacon!" thinks Charlie Croker. "True, Tabernacle Baptist was an In-Town Baptist church, a bit sophisticated, at least, as compared to a good old Footwashing Baptist church out in the countryside, but Godalmighty, nevertheless -- he was a Baptist deacon! -- and he was looking at these pictures of . . . of . . ." But as Wolfe limns the scene it becomes clear that "le tout Atlanta" isn't really participating in the grisly parody of the mass. Le tout Atlanta is yacking among itself and not paying a bit of attention to Satan either.
And then A Man in Full comes to its much-panned ("perfunctory and inadequate," said John Updike) ending. One of the less important characters ties up some loose ends in an epiloguic chat. It's allusive, brief, abrupt and a bit mysterious -- a conclusion much like the gospels have. Said the Apostle John: "And there were also so many other things . . . the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."
Something is slouching toward Bethlehem (and Atlanta), all right, but it's no rough beast. It's something conventional, middle-class, blushing, staid, and as unfashionable as a church service.
Tom Wolfe gives the last line to Roger White, the fellow who's a fan of western civ but is, withal, an everyman, neither very bad nor very good, and who has been seduced by politics, which makes him feel like a "man of the world." From the mouth of this humble vessel come the words, "`Oh, don't worry,' said the man of the world, `I'll be back.'"
P.J. O'Rourke is author most recently of Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.