A Man in Full

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1988, Tom Wolfe’s sprawling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities examined in unrelenting and often scathing detail the varied worlds of New York City, ranging from the conspicuous consumption of all sorts in the city’s glittering penthouses to the burned-out, blasted landscapes of the decaying Bronx. It was a work worthy of Honoré de Balzac, the definitive portrait of a greedy decade in the nation’s trading center.

With A Man in Full, Wolfe returns to fiction. Again, his sweep is broad and inclusive, and his cast of characters ranges from the elite to the underclass. This time his setting is the New South, specifically its unofficial capital, Atlanta, Georgia, the city that symbolizes the dynamism, growth, and wealth of the nation’s fastest-growing region. Atlanta, home of champion sports teams, jeweled setting for the 1996 Olympics, international hub of finance, proclaims itself “too busy to hate.”

Until just before the beginning of A Man in Full, this had been the world in which Charlie Croker lived—or believed he lived. Charlie, who came roaring out of southwestern Georgia to become famous playing both offense and defense for Georgia Tech’s football team, earning the nickname the “Sixty Minute Man,” is one of Atlanta’s most successful and best-known real-estate developers. His latest creation, Croker Concourse, gleams proudly northeast of the central city, a symbol of his triumph.

It is a hollow triumph, almost literally a facade, for office space at Croker Concourse remains largely unleased as hundreds of millions of dollars in bank debt remain unpaid. Soon, the loan officers at PlannersBanc are threatening Charlie and demanding that he restructure his company and sell off executive toys such as his jets. They even cast coldly calculating eyes on his beloved plantation, Turpmtine. While Charlie’s attention is fixed on his financial problem, his nemesis stalks him from an entirely different direction and through a highly unlikely messenger.

It was at Morehouse College, Atlanta’s prestigious school for the African American elite, that Roger White II was first dubbed “Roger Too White” by his fraternity brother Wes Jordan, now Atlanta’s mayor. Now, Roger Too White is tapped to perform a delicate mission: to enlist Charlie Croker’s public support of Fareek Fanon, “The Cannon,” a star football player at Georgia Tech accused (although not officially nor publicly) of date rape by the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most influential businessmen. Roger White’s means of persuasion is his ability to ease Charlie Croker’s financial problems by having PlannersBanc ease up on its repayment demands. Yet for Charlie to support Fanon will mean deserting his circle of friends, including his oldest, Inman Armholster—father of the young woman Fanon is supposed to have raped. It is a cruel dilemma, the full extent of which Charlie only slowly comprehends.

While Charlie cannot initially fathom his potential destruction, he is not even aware that he has set into motion his eventual salvation. In Oakland, California, Conrad Hensley, a warehouse worker for Croker Global Foods, is laid off as part of a drive to cut costs for Charlie’s far-flung companies. Before long, in a series of misadventures, Conrad sits in a prison cell, his only diversion a volume of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, sent to him by mistake. He begins to read and then to understand.

Delivered from his California prison by a providential earthquake, Conrad goes through a series of equally implausible (but, in Wolfe’s handling, utterly believable) events that bring him to Atlanta and Charlie Croker himself, for whom Conrad (known as Connie) serves as a male nurse following Charlie’s knee replacement. Gradually, Conrad imparts to the invalid the teachings of Epictetus, which will allow him to redeem himself at the conclusion of the novel. At the news conference during which he is expected to support Fanon, Charlie turns away from both the banks and the white power structure to reclaim his own integrity.

Once he has set the main plot in motion, Wolfe allows it to unfold gradually, letting it develop its power and momentum through the reader’s growing understanding and appreciation of the large cast of characters and their environment. The reader comes to learn that their vision of their lives and their city is essentially flawed.

Hell, someone once observed, is the truth discovered too late, and Atlanta’s truth can be sufficiently diabolical in A Man in Full. The city’s vaunted economic strength, like Charlie Croker’s real-estate empire, is built largely on credit lines and credulousness. The...

(The entire section is 1931 words.)