Aging, mortality and depression are at the heart of "A Man in Full.'

THE SECOND LIFE OF TOM WOLFE

And no wonder. For Wolfe, the book is more than a literary rebirth

November 29, 1998|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

It's Friday the 13th, and Tom Wolfe is dressed in camouflage.

His double-breasted blazer, dark as midnight, blends with the garb of some 600 psychiatrists and psychologists who have gathered in Baltimore for a two-day symposium honoring the chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

In 35 years, Wolfe has rarely been seen out of his signature, monochrome uniform: perfectly tailored three-piece suit, tightly tabbed collar, black-and-white faux-spats shoes. But on this day in November he is dressed to fade into the crowd. The spotlight belongs to Dr. Paul R. McHugh, to whom many in attendance owe their careers and to whom Wolfe may owe his life.

Just days into a book tour, Wolfe brims with energy. He is staring mortality in the face and peddling a novel that history may judge to be deathless.

Eleven years in the writing, "A Man in Full" is Wolfe's most ambitious book. Its first printing of 1.2 million copies is almost certainly the largest initial press order for a serious literary novel in American publishing history. Yet "A Man in Full" is beset by hostile reviews. It is set in Atlanta, where fight noises are being made and where Wolfe is due to appear in a few days.

The book is complex, 742 pages. One of its major themes is aging, mortality. The limits of active, productive life. The exhaustion of vital juices. All this blights Wolfe's main character, Charlie Croker.

"Chronological age didn't mean anything," Charlie tells himself early in the book, "but ... Jesus ... he was sixty now ... The thought weighed down his very bones. He tried to conceive picking himself up from out of the dirt again. ... The notion ... sent him sinking so deeply into the lounge chair, he wondered if he could even stand up. ... He began to feel immensely sorry for himself."

Sixty!

Tom Wolfe is 68.

But if your eyeglasses are smudged, or if the light is behind Wolfe as you take him in, he appears 35. He is lean, moves gracefully and at a withering pace, nothing like an old man.

Aging? There is a fading. You can see it in his face.

But it's not in his heart. Not in his head.

Passion drives him. He talks, thinks - his mind sharp - for relentless, long days.

Yet just 28 months ago, that heart almost went out of business. It was saved by quintuple bypass surgery - the repair and partial replacement of every single blood vessel that keeps a heart functioning and is large enough for a surgeon to work on.

And that head? Only 23 months ago, Wolfe went through turmoil that almost broke him - that left him saying that had it not been for precisely the right psychotherapy, "something awful would have happened."

It is almost an ode, a remarkable dedication coming from a writer legendary for his cool detachment:

"With immense admiration, the author dedicates 'A Man in Full' to Paul McHugh whose brilliance, comradeship, and unfailing kindness saved the day. This book would not exist had it not been for you, dear friend."

Soon after the McHugh symposium, Wolfe explains the story behind the dedication. Like "A Man in Full," its theme is mortality.

"Before my heart attack, I was a body snob," Wolfe explains. "I would walk down the street and see somebody with a paunch and say, 'He's history. He's going to die.' But it was I who almost was."

In August 1996, he suffered a heart attack. Quintuple bypass surgery healed quickly. "'I was very cheerful.

Superbly. I think the technical term is 'hypomania.' You are manic, but you are not so manic that you are irrational. You are just happy. I had never been so happy in my entire life.

"I became a different person. I would laugh uproariously in restaurants if somebody said anything even slightly funny. I also was feeling aggressive, which is totally unlike me. In a car, I started shaking my fists at people, blowing my horn.

"I remember once going a week early to a doctor's appointment, not knowing I was a week early. I could not be persuaded. I never talk back to a doctor. I said 'Look, I am here because I am supposed to be here on this day. If you do not have the mental faculties to comprehend this, I do, and this is my appointment.'

"So he said, 'You come right on in here, now, and have a seat right over here.' He was treating me like a lunatic. He was just getting me out of there so I wouldn't explode."

The euphoria lasted 2 months. "During that period I wrote faster than I had written in my life."

Then, suddenly, he hit bottom.

"Riding high was just leading to a crash. I didn't know what was happening. When you are depressed - I now recognize from reading William Styron's marvelous book on that subject - your brain is in constant turmoil and everything is negative.

"The book which I thought had such a fabulous plot now seemed an impossible thing to do. Everything that could go wrong was going to go wrong."

Wolfe, who had long been interested in neuroscience, had met McHugh in 1991 at a conference at Washington and Lee University, Wolfe's alma mater. Now he called the Hopkins psychiatrist, by this time a dear friend.

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