By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Charlie Croker's dilemma gives Wolfe the opportunity to do one of the things he does best -- satirize the pieties and politically correct locutions that compose the contemporary dialogue between whites and blacks. Conrad Hensley's dilemma, however, takes Wolfe onto far more sinister terrain. No sooner has the new prisoner settled into his cell at the correctional institute than the fierce-looking Rotto, shot caller for the jailhouse chapter of a white racist gang called the Nordic Bund, lets it be known that he wants to make Hensley his punk. As an inmate named Rapmaster EmCee New York, in a song written to commemorate the anticipated union, puts it:
Little punk, he gon' get turned out
He gon' learn 'bout comin' through
For the real funk, he be ass-out!
Ram 'at sucker, he gon' pass out!
Fucker, he gon' switch from
him to her . . .
An ain't that rich
GIVE IT UP, BITCH!
It is at this juncture that A Man in Full takes its riskiest and ultimately most rewarding turn. Due to a shipping error by a store from which he'd ordered a suspense novel titled The Stoic's Game, Hensley comes into the possession of an obscure tome titled The Stoics, featuring the works of Marcus Aurelius, Zeno and, most important, Epictetus. These writers, all of whom lived in the days of Imperial Rome, crafted a philosophy that stressed discipline, bravery and personal honor. As Hensley sits in his cell reading, their words resonate powerfully. Declares Epictetus:
To ye prisoners on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, what says Zeus? Zeus says, "If it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions (those trifles that you prize) free and untrammelled. But as things are -- never forget this -- this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. I gave you a portion of our divinity, a spark from our own fire, the power to act and not to act, the will to get and the will to avoid. If you pay heed to this, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none."
It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that Zeus, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. "For what purpose?" you may say. "Why, that you may become an Olympic conquerer"; but it is not accomplished without sweat.
Epictetus, in short, is speaking across the ages to Hensley, and before A Man in Fullreaches its conclusion, he will speak to Croker. Finally, however, he is speaking to us, and for anyone who's followed Wolfe since he burst upon the scene with the 1965 publication of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, these preachments mark a stunning change. Though the author has, over the decades, provided oblique clues as to what he believes -- particularly in The Right Stuff, where the code adopted by the Mercury astronauts amounts to a kind of faith -- he has essentially maintained a cool detachment, preferring to dissect others rather than reveal himself. But now, on the cusp of the millennium, he has tipped his hand. His reasons for doing so can be inferred from the news that in 1996 he suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery, an experience that forced him to face his own mortality. More pertinent, though, may be the times. This is a slippery age, one when the president of the United States resorts to double talk to avoid a prosecutor's questions and O.J. Simpson suggests he was a victim of spousal abuse by the woman he murdered, one when everyone seems willing to cut a deal and few seem willing to make a principled stand. And so the debates animating A Man in Full-- Can a man betray a friend without betraying himself? Can he surrender his dignity without surrendering his soul? -- are exceedingly pertinent. And if Wolfe's prescience regarding the nation's drift remains intact, the positions his characters finally adopt may suggest that the winds of change are blowing. "He had shed all the shabby baggage of this life," the author writes of Charlie Croker near the end. "He had become a vessel of the Divine."