Magazine article Newsweek

Tom Wolfe's Rooftop Yawp

Magazine article Newsweek

Tom Wolfe's Rooftop Yawp

Article excerpt

His crackling novel deserves to be news. But America is better than Wolfe's Atlanta.

Time was, novels mattered to mass audiences. When Charles Dickens was serializing "The Old Curiosity Shop," New Yorkers gathered at the docks to greet ships carrying London periodicals, and shouted to crew members, "Is Little Nell dead?" Time was, novels shaped common discourse. When young Teddy Roosevelt's growth spurt caused his wrists and ankles to protrude from his suit, his family called it his "Smike suit." Smike is an urchin abused at Wackford Squeers's hellish school in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby." When in 1910 journalists asked a TR supporter if the ex-president might run again in 1912, the supporter simply said, "Barkis is willin'." Barkis is the stagecoach driver who courts David Copperfield's childhood nurse, Clara Peggotty, reiterating, "Barkis is willin'." The reference to Barkis was understood by the reporters and their readers.

Today's biggest best sellers sell fewer copies in a year than the "Titanic" video sold the day it was released. But now comes Tom Wolfe's second great rooftop yawp of a novel, and suddenly a novel is news. It is because it strikes chords of anxieties about the nation's character. Critics said Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" defined the 1980s--Wall Street "Masters of the Universe," race hustlers, carnivorous journalism and other wretched excesses. Critics say "A Man in Full" does the same for the 1990s. They praise its "realism." But there is more to realism than describing brand names and people behaving badly. Actually, the novel is more caricature than portraiture, although caricature can, and here does, rise to literature. The novel is suffused with a sensibility of the 1950s, the decade when Wolfe was young.

Set in Atlanta, the novel's protagonist is Charlie Croker, a creaky ex-football star whose high life as a real-estate developer collapses under a mountain of debt. Aftershocks engulf people as far away as Oakland. The social soil beneath everyone's feet is, Wolfe suggests, a thin, brittle crust (a humdinger of an earthquake advances Wolfe's story). People are plunged through the crust into chaos by slight causes, such as a stubborn meter maid.

As in "Bonfire," Wolfe's subjects are ambition, celebrity, pol-itics, race, class and money. Money is almost a character: Wolfe understands money as living, throbbing, sinewy stuff--pulsing life in the billion-footed beast, America.

Dickens (like Wolfe, a journalist before he was a novelist) could write novels of scathing disapproval, but he was, as Orwell said, "generously angry." Wolfe, whose novels have Dickensian energy and capaciousness, is less angry at than darkly amused by modern America. His is the clinical, mordant, often disdainful amusement of a dyspeptic anthropologist studying a tribe he heartily disapproves of. But at bottom, and in the end, the book is a high-octane moral judgment and exhortation. No use "driving yourself crazy over possessions," says a chastened and emancipated Croker. You will be a "slave to how you think others are judging you" until you understand that "the only real possession you'll ever have is your character. …

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