A Man in Full is another massive Wolfe effort, 742 pages in length, which reveals his indebtedness to the nineteenth century French naturalists and Victorian realists. There are two major plot lines, several significant subplots, and literally hundreds of characters. The dual protagonists are Charles “Charlie” Croker, a once powerful businessman whose real estate empire is rapidly crumbling around him, and Conrad Hensley, young, married, father of two, whose straits are even more desperate than Charlie’s. Charlie has overbuilt a large office complex and has gone deeply into debt in the process. As a result, one of Charlie’s allied businesses, Croker Global Foods, near Oakland, California, must lay off workers. Conrad Hensley is one of these employees. The two protagonists’ fortunes spiral downward simultaneously.
The construction of the narrative is reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), wherein the stories of Anna and Levin proceed separately and do not really converge until almost page 700 of an 800-page novel. Similarly, for most of A Man in Full, Charlie is fighting for his fortune and the life that he has known in the Southeast, while Conrad suffers on the West Coast. Both stories are rich in incident and reflect Wolfe’s attitude toward fiction—why, with the wealth of material America affords (race relations, sexual mores, regional and class distinctions, the cult of celebrity, fortunes won and lost, politics, sports, show business, and more) would any novelist limit himself or herself to a narrow, inward-looking stylistic approach?
Charlie has a family which, if not dysfunctional, at least complicates his life. He has an ex-wife, Martha, who got a generous divorce settlement; a trophy wife, Serena, thirty-two years younger than he; an eleven-month-old daughter; and three children from his first marriage, two of whom are older than his wife.
Wolfe reintroduces the theme of racial conflict with which he has dealt since the publication of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. Fareek “the Cannon” Fanon, Georgia Tech’s star running back, is accused of raping the daughter of a prominent white Atlantan. As racial tensions are close to bursting into violence, Fanon, an inner-city product, is defended by Roger White II, a successful light-skinned black lawyer, who has been derisively labeled “Roger Too White.” As Roger frets over his suspension between the two races, Wolfe is one of the few white writers daring to deal with the question of what makes a person an “Authentic Black.”
While Charlie is dying, economically and socially, the death of a thousand cuts in Atlanta, Conrad, through a series of misadventures and downright injustices, is jailed in Alameda County, California. By mistake, he is sent as reading material The Stoics, and he soon becomes a disciple of the philosopher Epictetus. An earthquake strikes, the correctional facility collapses, and Conrad escapes. Mai, a member of an underground railroad for illegal Asian aliens, sends him to Atlanta, where it is believed that he will be safe. Conrad meets Charlie, becomes his “man,” and sticks with him after all others have left. Conrad converts Charlie, who becomes a highly successful evangelist of Stoicism throughout Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
The title of the novel is nicely ambiguous. It may simply mean that each of the heroes has been studied from every possible angle, or it may mean that it is only when Charlie and Conrad are united that the reader sees “a man in full.”