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The Divine Comedy

Art by Shino Arihara
What a piece of work is A Man in Full! In form how satisfying! In action how compelling! And in apprehension how like, well, Tom Wolfe! Once again, American literature's 67-year-old enfant terrible, the author who christened the 1970s "the Me Decade" and whose 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, chronicled the excesses of Wall Street in the era of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, has taken the measure of the Zeitgeist. This time, the setting is Atlanta, and the subject, though ostensibly the outrageous real estate machinations that made the city and the racial divisions that threaten to unmake it, is, in truth, something far greater, something that, given Wolfe's preternatural knack for catching a wave, just might herald the next cultural sea change.

But first, a few preliminaries. A Man in Full is, on the surface, a novel about two seemingly very different white males, one of whom is Charlie Croker. This former Georgia Tech football star -- "the Sixty-Minute Man," the newspapers dubbed him, because he played both offense and defense -- is a master of the universe, Southern division. Developer of Atlanta's premier office properties and overseer of a diverse business empire, he owns a fleet of corporate jets, belongs to the exclusive Piedmont Driving Club and goes home each night to the mansion he shares with a trophy wife. Yet what Croker values most -- and what differentiates him from Wolfe's prototypical high roller, Bonfire's Sherman McCoy -- is his sprawling quail-hunting plantation, Turpmtine. There, with a .410 gauge shotgun across his lap and his dogs, horses and loyal black retainers at his side, he is at one with an older, primal world.

A Man in Full's other principal protagonist is 23-year-old Conrad Hensley. This child of irresponsible hippie parents works the graveyard shift in the football-field-size freezer unit of Croker Global's Contra Costa County, California, food warehouse. A so-called picker, he spends his nights wresting 80-pound pallets of ice-cold waffles and chicken parts out of storage slots and onto forklifts for transport to a loading dock. Each morning, he drives his battered Hyundai home to the tiny East Bay duplex he shares with his young wife and their two small children. Bleak circumstances, these, yet Hensley nurtures a sustaining dream and has saved $4,622.85 toward fulfilling it. One day, he plans to buy a condominium in the leafy little town of Danville and provide his family with a better life.

For all their dissimilarities, Charlie Croker and Conrad Hensley end up not just being a lot alike but sharing a common destiny. Wolfe kicks off the series of wild but altogether plausible events that bring the two together with a brilliant set piece. The scene is a conference room on the 32nd floor of Atlanta's PlannersBanc Tower. The occasion is what is known in the industry as a workout session, and it has been called because the guest of honor is what is known rather less delicately as a shithead. Simply stated, Croker has fallen $800 million in arrears on various loans incurred while building a massive and largely unleased suburban office complex. The purpose of the get-together is literally to sweat the big man -- the bankers want to see the armpits of his shirt soak through -- into divesting various assets to pay back his debts. "Seven company cars . . . Sell 'em," orders the ex-Marine running the show. "Four aircraft . . . Sell 'em," comes the next directive. Then, finally: "Twenty-nine thousand acres in Baker County, Georgia . . . We got the correct spelling here, T,U,R,P,M,T,I,N,E . . . Sell it." By the time Croker, favoring a bum knee injured on the gridiron, limps away, he realizes he may lose everything. To throw PlannersBanc a bone, he instructs his chief financial officer to lay off 15 percent of his food-division employees.

While Charlie Croker has farther to fall, Conrad Hensley is already so close to the edge that the pink slip he receives following the workout session in Atlanta spells immediate trouble. In fact, the bottom drops out just several days later when he drives to Oakland to take a word-processing test at a job agency called ContempoTime. Upon returning to the street where he'd parked, Hensley discovers a tow truck pulling his ticketed Hyundai away from the red zone into which the driver of a blocked-in Chevy Suburban had thuggishly knocked it. From here, it's a harrowing and speedy trip -- uncaring faces, insufficient funds, a fistfight on the lot of Three C Towing, Salvage & Repair in East Oakland, a conviction for aggravated assault -- to hell on Earth: the Alameda County Correctional Institute.

 

Thus Wolfe positions Croker and Hensley exactly where he wants them -- stripped of many of the vestments in which the male of the species cloaks itself and ready to confront the respective trials that lie at the heart of A Man in Full. For Croker, the test is rooted in the fertile soil of financial opportunity and racial accommodation from which modern Atlanta has arisen. As it so happens, the 1990s version of the Sixty-Minute Man -- a black Georgia Tech running back named Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon -- is facing a rape charge. The alleged victim is the debutante daughter of a prominent Piedmont Driving Club member who, needless to say, is white. Fearful of the riot that might ensue should Fanon be convicted, and knowing of Croker's impending bankruptcy, the city's black mayor and a black fixer lawyer make Croker an offer he can't possibly refuse: Appear at a news conference on behalf of Fanon, and we'll use our considerable leverage to get PlannersBanc to restructure your loans on favorable terms. Yet however reasonable the deal sounds, it presents a huge problem -- the father of the girl leveling the accusations is among Croker's best friends.

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."

 

And:

 

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 Full reaches 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."


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