Why does Tom Wolfe’s latest book make the mandarins of taste so uncomfortable? John Updike took a good deal of space in the New Yorker to declare that A Man in Full was “entertainment, not literature.” Norman Mailer in the New York Review of Books dismissed the novel as an “adroit commercial counterfeit.” Martin Amis and others fell into line, all seemingly intent on assuring that no one took the book’s position at the top of the best-seller list as evidence of literary merit. When Wolfe’s work was passed over for last year’s Pulitzer and other awards, J. Bottum noted in the Weekly Standard that “There’s something about his sprawling brand of social realism that makes our literary professionals purse their lips in disapproval.”
T. S. Eliot once told us that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Perhaps that’s why so many literary professionals not only disapproved of but misread Wolfe’s book. What, for example, is one to make of the capsule description of A Man in Full that ran week after week on the New York Times best-seller list: “Life in Atlanta on the cusp of the millennium, as Old South values collide with a new world.” The Old South? Wolfe makes clear in his very first chapter that, for him, Atlanta is emblematic of American mobility. The self-made real estate tycoon Charlie Croker muses: “Atlanta had never been a true Old Southern city like Savannah or Charleston or Richmond, where wealth had originated with the land.” Atlanta was “the offspring of the railroad business,” a place where “people had been making money on the hustle ever since.” A Man in Full is not about a collision of values. It’s a portrait of a society where values other than sheer self-interest are difficult to discern.
Strangely, most reviewers (John Podhoretz was an exception) overlooked the extent to which A Man in Full is about masculinity. The book is densely populated with male characters from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, each struggling in his way with the question of what it is to be a man in a world where masculine roles entrenched for centuries have all but disappeared. Women and children are very much in the background. For most of the men, sexual conquest and various forms of imitation warfare have immense importance; fatherhood barely figures among their preoccupations.
Another curious feature of the reviews is that nearly all of them take for granted that the book’s “hero” is the flamboyant, aging Charlie Croker, who, when we meet him, is on the brink of a financial disaster precipitated by a foolish investment in a forty-story office building named after himself. Yet the action of the plot involves the convergence of Croker’s journey through life with that of another protagonist, twenty-four-year-old Conrad Hensley, who has a menial job in a California frozen food warehouse owned by Charlie. When we meet Conrad, he too is on the brink of a fall—precipitated by his foolish, or at least imprudent, refusal to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.
Conrad, like nearly half the members of his generation, spent much of his childhood without a father. His hippie parents openly disdained such bourgeois values as “order, moral rectitude, courtesy, cooperation, education, financial success, comfort, respectability, pride in one’s offspring, and, above all, domestic tranquillity.” The boy, for his part, dreamed of a more orderly life, a college education and a happy family. But the dream became difficult to realize when, at age eighteen, he married his pregnant girlfriend Jill and soon thereafter had a second child. Nevertheless, Conrad took a dangerous job so as to save for a condo, tried hard to be a good father to his bratty children, and, despite temptations, remained faithful to his nagging wife Jill. His progress toward these modest goals is interrupted when he is falsely accused of aggravated assault.
Things really take a turn for the worse when Conrad refuses the prosecutor’s offer of probation in exchange for a guilty plea. He is convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. To his uncomprehending and infuriated wife, he tries to explain. “But I kept something, Jill. I kept my honor, and I didn’t bargain away my soul. When the time comes I wanna be able to look Carl and Christy in the eye and say, I was innocent. I was falsely accused. I refused to compromise with a lie. I went into prison, but I went into prison a man, and I came out of prison a man.”
It is far from clear, however, that Conrad will be able to emerge from the Santa Rita Correctional Facility with his manliness or anything else intact. Lying on his bunk in this terrifying place, Conrad lets his thoughts wander. “He had grown up associating religion with the self-delusion and aimlessness of adults. But now he thought about the soul, his soul. Or he tried to. But it was only a word! He didn’t know how to give it any meaning! . . . And yet there was something . . . that caused him to care whether he lived or died and to worry about Jill and Carl and Christy. Perhaps that was his soul. Whatever it was it was not confined within his body and his mind.”
Through a mix-up, Conrad receives an anthology of writings by Stoic philosophers instead of the thriller he was eagerly awaiting. In this strange tome, he finds passages that seem addressed directly to him. He is intrigued by Epictetus’ idea of a divinity who gives mankind “a spark of his own fire.” He tries to open himself up to this divine energy. “Having never believed in a god, and having never prayed before, he didn’t even know that this was prayer.”
Though Conrad finds much sustenance in the book, he is no Stoic. He becomes a more self-aware version of the same young man who risked death in the Croker warehouse to save his buddy Ken from the path of a careening forklift. In jail, Conrad invites deadly retaliation when he comforts a hapless newcomer who has been sodomized and beaten by members of the vicious gang that rules the cellblock. When he is delivered from that peril by an earthquake that destroys the prison (shades of St. Paul), Conrad puts his life in jeopardy yet again to extricate a cell mate from the rubble. He realizes that if he followed Epictetus’ counsel, he would not get involved in the problems of others, but he doesn’t feel able “to be that heartless.”
Updike, one of the few reviewers to understand that the book in an important way was “all about religion,” got the religion wrong. No Stoic ever taught that a man should lay down his life for his brother. Critical of the book as culminating “in renunciation and nonattachment,” Updike completely lost sight of Conrad, who, at story’s end, heads home to the wife and children he has never ceased to think about and love through all his wanderings. To Updike, the book’s “most sympathetic” character is a forty-two-year-old African-American lawyer who over the course of the book gradually sheds his refined tastes, regular habits, and moral scruples. Is it possible that Updike simply cannot imagine a good family man as the hero of a novel?
For many reviewers, I suspect, Wolfe has penetrated American reality too deeply for comfort. His portrait of fin-de-siècle America is unsettling, in some ways reminiscent of Rome in the time of Nero and his Stoic tutor Seneca. There is more wealth and social mobility than in the Republic, especially for men who know how to seize the main chance. There is also more equality. Citizens of many different languages and origins mingle on an equal footing. And what liberty! Behavior formerly frowned upon is now tolerated. Marriage is easily terminated. Pleasures once reserved to the wealthy are now within the reach of persons of modest means. Games and spectacles abound. The poor are in a separate world, but kept from destitution by the dole. The affluent ape the speech, dress, and manners of the lower classes.
Artists, of course, are supposed to see more deeply than the rest of us. But that gift does not always earn our admiration. Wolfe forces us to contemplate what happens when a whole society begins to reject the habits and virtues that are necessary to sustain dignified life in a democratic polity (and what happens to writers who buy into the values of such a society).
It is said that A Man in Full has contributed to a revival of interest in the Stoics. How intriguing if that is indeed the case. In an increasingly chaotic Rome, the teachings of the Stoics offered people support in times of trial and lent dignity to the humblest life. But we know now that their philosophy of renunciation and nonattachment was a forerunner to a more complete answer to the question of what it is to be “a man in full.”
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.