'A Man in Full': Wolfe's major literary milestone

November 08, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Eleven years after "Bonfire of the Vanities," Tom Wolfe has produced his second novel, "A Man in Full." A century or two from now, if this planet still harbors human life and literacy, it will be read by anyone with a desire to grasp what the late 20th century was all about in America.

Set in Atlanta and rural Georgia, Wolfe's novel shouts and sings with the richly varied voices of regionalism. More importantly, it is a comprehensive tapestry of contemporary American forces, motivations, needs and weaknesses.

With characteristic clarity of eye and deftness of language, Wolfe explores the extremes of conspicuous consumption, the roots of crass materialism, the wild whimsy of high-flying finance and banking, core conflicts within emerging African-American political leadership. He delves deeply into the despair of aging, loneliness and the indomitability of the human spirit.

It is a work of powerful moral values - unforgiving and affirming, damning and redemptive. Wolfe accomplishes all that with the pace, power and economy of narrative line that can hold a reader fast until - as happened to me - there comes the sudden, disbelieving awareness that dawn has risen.

While looking outward instead of inward, it suggests the detail and breadth of vision that distinguish Proust. In the scope of plot and the range of characters, it is Dickensian - but holds artfully back from Dickens' more political, less literary reformist novels. It set me to thinking of Fitzgerald's "Gatsby," Balzac's "Lost Illusions," maybe Mann's "Buddenbrooks," Trollope's "The Way We Live Now."

Critics a generation or so hence will decide if "A Man in Full" rises to those enduring pinnacles. But I find in this book the depth, the fidelity, the seriousness that define the threshold of that canon.

In its detail and acuity, it is a narrative of intense, intricate realism - sharp-edged, cinematic, aural. Yet, finally - in full, so to speak - it is a novel about, and of, spirituality.

That will startle many Wolfe enthusiasts and detractors alike. Since the early 1960s, he has been one of the very best nonfiction writers who have understood, recorded, reported - thus defined - the frontiers of American awareness, imagination and delusion.

His earliest books grew out of his radically innovative reporting for the New York Herald-Tribune, Esquire, Rolling Stone and others. The reporting he and a small handful of others did then came to be called seminal works of "The New Journalism," a now ambiguous term that's better left to history. (At the Herald-Tribune and subsequently, I knew Wolfe, but we have never been close friends.)

Broad canvases

Those articles were exciting because of Wolfe's mastery of language, rhythm, sound - but above all for his capacity to use microscopically observed details to produce panoramic group portraits. Capturing the American zeitgeist, they were important. They inspired thousands of imitators of his techniques and hundreds of serious followers of his ideas. They changed journalism.

Wolfe captured the essence of America's breaking-edge trends, affectations, cultural foments - with dispassion, clarity and depth that it took years, or decades, for scholarship and other major writers to catch up with.

Wolfe was the first to write with authority about the drug fad among America's advantaged classes. He virtually defined the psychedelic. He tracked with incomparable fidelity the rootless, rebellious stirrings in the hearts and lives of the Vietnam-era disillusioned youth - and the rise of confrontation politics in minority leadership and its celebration by the privileged guilt-afflicted.

He tracked the Emperor's New Clothes phenomenon among the consumers of the 1960s and 1970s postmodern art market. In perhaps his greatest nonfiction accomplishment, he found the cosmic drama and the contrived theatricality of the space program - "The Right Stuff." He ran to ground the foundations, aesthetic and commercial, of contemporary architecture. And more.

He did all that in a manner arising from classic reporting techniques. Yet it did enrage. His work was so fastidious that is was nearly impossible to attack - except with head-on tantrums, with raging pique. But I remember dozens, more, parties from the late 1960s into the late 1980s, in New York especially, where Wolfe would be discussed by Major Personages from the worlds he had written about.

They always reminded me of Saki's great short story, "Tobermory," the tale of a house cat that was able to talk - but, far more dangerously, was able to listen, and then to repeat with faultless precision the cruelties of very private conversations at a very elaborate British country-weekend house party.

Tobermory, of course, had to be poisoned. Such is the success of American felony-homicide laws, that Wolfe has not been. But not for any lack of enthusiasm for the job among many people he has reported upon.

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