Monday, February 9, 2009

A Man in Full

Before writing this essay, I looked on Amazon to see what others had to say about A Man in Full. Considering I finally read the book five years after I bought a used copy and eleven after it was published, I assumed a lot had already been said. It wasn’t that I didn’t have my own opinion. It was more that, after slogging through all 742 pages of it, I had more opinions than I knew how to handle. Some good, some bad, some fluctuating.

What I noticed - in briefing through a dozen or so of the 898 reviews on Amazon - is the tendency to thoroughly recap the plot. Why do that? A synopsis spoils the story for those who haven’t read it – a novel needs to unfold fresh to be fully savored – and it’s a waste of time for a person who’s read the book and is looking at reviews to see if others share his take. The only real value I see in detailing the plot is when the reviewer is not recommending it and needs to inform his reader as to what happens in order to understand why the books fails.

My principle interest in writing a review is to answer the question, Why should you (or should you not) read A Man in Full?

The brief answer is: it’s a fun ride, occasionally awkward and uncomfortably long, but ultimately enjoyable. It’s Tom Wolfe. It’s richly drawn characters, whose lives are in conflict and at crossroads and whose perspectives and sensibilities change as the circumstances of their lives change. It’s also caricatures, included to heighten the drama and decorate the scenery. It’s getting inside the lives of people you might not know in real life, but feel at some point in the book they really exist and you care what happens to them. It’s drama, albeit artificial in the amount of coincidence it takes for the characters’ lives to intersect as they do. And it’s even a book about philosophy, about valuing what is valuable and discarding what is not.

No novel written in the 1980s better captured the zeitgeist of that decade than did Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. But of course, that was the author’s goal. Tom Wolfe had been, up to that time, a popular non-fiction writer who, in long-form magazine articles and in books, tried to paint a picture with words which said, “This is what life is like for these people living in this place at this time.” Wolfe lives in New York and he set out in Bonfire to say that in fiction about his home town. Critics deemed his style journalistic fiction.

With A Man in Full, Wolfe set out to paint a picture with words saying, “This is what life is like for these people – a very wealthy real estate tycoon and everyone in his orbit – living in Atlanta and its environs in the late 1990s.” Allowing for the fact that much of his take is satirical, that his focus is mostly on a rich upper crust and not ordinary Atlantans, and that his exposition of race and race relations in the book is itself more caricature than nuance in order to serve the needs of his plot, Wolfe succeeds. By the end, you can comfortably say, “I sense what life was like at that time for these people in that place.”

The book takes excursions to other locations, so we get, short stories – each of which could probably stand on its own – graphically detailing, for example, how thoroughbred horses are managed in a breeding barn, what life is like in a real, yet decrepit California prison, the bleak reality of warehouse work in a freezer, and how banks twist the screws on defaulted borrowers who’ve gone upside down on their loans.

A Man in Full falls short on a few details – for example, the author mistakenly states that Vacaville is in the Napa Valley, and he once calls Contra Costa County Livermore County. Also, in trying to capture the argot of various subcultures – particularly the lingo used in prison and in hip-hop – it feels both clich├ęd and off the mark. I don’t fault Wolfe for trying to capture the essence of this language. His mistake was in going on with it for too long.

Many of the Amazon reviewers focused on how the story plays out in the end. Because I don't want to spoil the story, I can't explain why I think they are wrong. However, suffice it to say that you might find the denouement abrupt. I don't think that's a shortcoming of the book. Wolfe's intention was to tell this story of cosmopolitan Atlanta and complete the arc of the lives of his characters. The way the story ends does not detract from that at all.

Midway through A Man in Full, I wasn’t sure where the plot was going and wasn’t sure I wanted to know. That was because for awhile Wolfe gets bogged down in a long detour set outside of his main character. "Get on with it," I was thinking. "If this hadn't been penned by Tom Wolfe, but instead by an unknown, his editor would have slashed a couple hundred pages from this novel."

However, by the end, when the plot brings together all the players, I was happy to have gone along for the ride. Because it is long, and it takes time to get to know the characters and know what their motivations are, you feel invested in the book and eager to find out where their lives are going. It is, after all, a fun ride.

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