Books: Swinging Trickster Digs Deep in the Heart of Dixie How Many More Outrageous Comic Epics Can a 67-Year-Old Expect to Write? John Sutherland Worries That Tom Wolfe Has Saved the Best till Last

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A Man in Full

by Tom Wolfe

Jonathan Cape, pounds 20, 742pp MY MAIN anxiety about A Man in Full is actuarial. Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987 when he was 56. This, his second, has appeared at the age of 67. I can think of no other novelist who has started so late, so well, and so slowly. And, alas, Wolfe is not what the insurance companies would call a "good life": he has already had his first serious heart attack. Despite having taken up fiction at a time when his doctors might well have prescribed nine-hole golf, Wolfe has an uncanny knack: it is what one might call third-age cool. With space-suited Glenn in orbit and vanilla- suited Wolfe at the top of the bestseller list (combined score, 144 years), this must be the year of the swinging old geezer. A Man in Full makes the polemical point (uttered ex-cathedra by Wolfe in 1989) that the modern novel, like the legendary winky- wanky bird, has gone round in ever smaller circles, eventually disappearing up its own modernity. The genre needs, in Wolfe's analysis, to re- root in its coarse subsoil: the realist novel of the 19th century. And it must address itself not to the mandarins but to the REM generation. The novel centres on a 60-year-old Atlanta real-estate developer. Charlie Croker has a trophy second wife ("a boy with breasts", his first wife cattily thinks) and a business going belly-up. He owes over half-a-billion to his bank. What saves him? The stoic philosophy of Epictetus - another old geezer with the right stuff. A Man in Full has the same shape and narrative routines as The Bonfire of the Vanities. The building-block of Wolfe's fiction is the riff. Each chapter revolves around a single vivid episode: Charlie Croker, for example, superintending the mating of his stud stallion First Draw with a luckless brood mare. "Smash! - the stallion came crashing down on the mare's back and drove his enormous penis toward her yawning vulva. The very ground shook beneath Charlie and his band of guests. The quake rattled their innards. The planets collided. The earth wobbled. Sex! Lust! Desperate! Irresistible!" Within the large riff are smaller riffs; typically, a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique marked by ellipses, capitals and exclamations. The young hero (Arrian to Charlie's Epictetus) is Conrad Hensley. By a crazy series of events which begin with a parking ticket, Conrad finds himself in the "house" (prison) about to be "turned out" (gang raped) by the "Nordic Bund" (white supremacists). Comedy and horror mix, as they typically do in Wolfe. What saves Conrad from a fate worse than ten deaths? The philosophy of Epictetus and an act of God, specifically Zeus (don't ask). A Man in Full is a more accomplished effort than The Bonfire of the Vanities; Wolfe integrates his narrative better. Yet this novel, like its predecessor, is crammed with incidental goodies, vast cargoes of information caught by Wolfe's journalist eye. We learn what it is like to work in a food- factory freezer unit, so cold that snot icicles droop from your nostrils. And we learn why it is black kids in the 'hood wear baggy pants: "in prison they don't provide belts, and so if your pants are too big you let them ride down". Contemplating Wolfe's career, one is driven to ask why, at this late age, he has turned to fiction. As a literary vein, the New Journalism is far from worked out (what Wolfe could do with the Lewinsky affair!). The reason, one suspects, is that the novel is the last literary territory where you can write freely (and irresponsibly) about forbidden topics. And the "radioactive" topic is, of course, race. The plot of A Man in Full derives clearly enough from the OJ circus. A running back at Georgia Tech, Fareek "Cannon" Fanon, is accused of raping a white businessman's daughter. …