A only slightly sarcastic review of Tom Wolfe's novel about Atlanta real estate, football, and racial politics.
A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
(US) $28.95, 742 Pages
Tom Wolfe had been going to lunches with editors for thirty years, so he knew the language of dining venues. He knew that meeting in an extravagantly expensive restaurant usually meant the publisher was certain of the book's success, but also that the editor he was talking to was too senior to have actually read the manuscript. Still, it was only when he noticed the plastic plant in the corner of the pizza parlor that he fully appreciated just how different this lunch was going to be.
"Good morning, Mr. Wolfe," said the extraordinarily junior editor as she slid into the seat across the table from him. While Wolfe had always made it his practice to be gracious to all the editorial munchkins he encountered, this courtesy did not always extend to remembering their names. He suffered a spasm of panic before recalling that this particular munchkin with the prematurely graying hair was named "Laetitia."
"Well, good afternoon, Laetitia!" he said with what he hoped sounded like genuine good cheer. "What a wonderful idea to meet in an informal setting like this! I can't remember the last time I had a good pepperoni pizza!"
"I eat here every day, Mr. Wolfe," she said without looking up as she leveraged the 1,500 page manuscript of his book out of her shabby book-bag and onto the formica tabletop. "And if you don't mind, all I am budgeted for is a plain pie."
This is getting serious, he thought as he sipped his Diet Pepsi. Still smiling, he asked, "Do you have any overall comments about the book?"
The intolerant glare of her ringed and sunken eyes seemed to bore directly into his brain. "About which book?"
He had a momentary falling-elevator sensation as he wondered whether he had mixed up his appointments and was actually talking to his tax accountant. But no, surely his finances had not reached the plastic-plant stage? "'A Man in Full,' of course," he answered in a slightly disconcerted tone.
"But which 'man in full' is your manuscript about?" she asked with a note of accusation. "Look, you have three major characters here: an aging Atlanta real estate developer with an unsellable office complex and an expensive trophy wife, a black corporate lawyer who has spent his whole life trying to avoid involvement in racial cases, and an earnest young man who rejects his hippie parents in a heroic struggle to attain bourgeois respectability. You also have a comic villain, a staff officer at the developer's bank who hopes to get his hands on the old fellow's assets. What's the little jerk's name?"
"Yes, Peepgass. Just what is that supposed to mean?"
"Well, it is supposed to suggest a certain trifling flatulence."
"I tell you what, Mr. Wolfe, why don't we leave the cute surnames to Dickens, okay? Anyone who would name the principal black character `White,' as you did, should not overexert himself. And speaking of whimsical language, are you aware of how many words and turns of phrase you use in book after book? Your vocabulary has become as idiosyncratic as H.P. Lovecraft's. Somehow, you always manage to mention `deltoids,' `season of the rising sap,' 'tout le monde' and, my personal favorite, 'loamy thighs.'"
Wolfe's discrete reconnaissance of Laetitia's legs as she sat down had actually lowered that particular phrase on his list of things to think about, though of course he would never comment on such a topic himself. He was, after all, a southern gentleman. Besides, she was drinking Yoohoo, which suggested she might be physically dangerous.
"In any case," she went on, "for the life of me, I just don't see why we should care about these people. Take the developer, Croaker I think you call him. He is the center of the book, to the extent it has a center. The problem is, he is no more interesting than the other vain, rich people you have been writing about for years. Granted, the description of the quail hunt on his plantation presents a higher order of wretched excess than we find in your New York stories, but it is hard to feel any interest in, much less sympathy for, somebody who is going broke on $6 million per year."
Wolfe could no longer restrain himself.
"Laetitia, if I may say so, you are failing to appreciate the rich warp and woof of American society that I depict in this book. Consider the earnest young man you mentioned, Hensley. He has to forego higher education to work in a cold-storage warehouse so he can support his young family. He is unjustly sent to jail, which provides an occasion to contrast the sentimental homoeroticism of a museum exhibition in Atlanta with the brutal reality of a society where homosexuality is normal. More important, though, his study of the Stoics while in prison allows me to introduce a philosophical perspective on the content of masculine gender roles that has been sorely missing these many years."
Wolfe was slightly disappointed that Laetitia did not take offense at this response. In fact, he was somewhat offended himself when she answered him through a mouthful of plain pizza.
"You know, I was thinking myself that you might have had a tight little novella right at the end of the book, where Hensley preaches the gospel of Epictetus to the despondent Croaker. You could have set it up as a dialogue in the classical style, which is by far the most entertaining way to present a sustained argument. Before you could do something like that, though, you would really have to do your homework. Stoicism has a metaphysics as well as an ethics, for one thing, so you would have to engage postmodernism to some extent. And you would also have to avoid making historical bloopers, like the statement on page 666 that Nero reigned about AD 95. As the book stands, that coincidence between the name and the page number is the most interesting thing in the text"
"My character said that," Wolfe interrupted with dignity, "a young autodidact without the benefit of university training."
"Un-hunh," she said, inhaling her fourth slice of pizza. "Look, Mr. Wolfe, it really doesn't matter whether Nero lived so long ago that he had a pet dinosaur. The really big problem with your really big book is that these lives you describe simply don't have anything to do with each other."
"That is just unfair!" he exclaimed, accidentally dripping some tomato sauce onto the trousers of his immaculate white suit. Since that suit was his pride and world-famous trademark, Laetitia was puzzled by how little this accident seemed to worry him. Little did she know that there were 19 suits just like it in the dust-free biological containment room he used as a wardrobe.
"The way that I tie these people together is both natural and ingenious. The racial incident, the desire of the Atlanta city government to keep the peace, Croaker's status as a former football hero and his bank's susceptibility to political pressure, all these devices mesh together perfectly. The only somewhat artificial accident is the one whereby Hensley meets Croaker, and by your account that is the only part of the book that is any good."
"Yes, it is ingenious," she countered. "It is even informative, if you want to know about how banks try to extract money from their big debtors without actually sending them into default. The fact remains that all this machinery cuts across the grain of the book. 'A Man in Full' is supposed to be about how fate is determined by personal character, but the key features of the plot are wholly arbitrary. Even worse, most of the plot machinery is not even assembled until fairly late in the book. When you tell a story involving characters who don't meet until near the end, the story has to be an explanation of why these characters were really connected from the very beginning. Instead, you have written a book that might have been three separate books until the last hundred pages."
Wolfe exhaled. "Well, I'll be damned if I will rewrite this thing from scratch, and I won't see it broken up into separate books. As far as I am concerned, the book is complete, and it is pretty good."
"I won't argue with you, Mr. Wolfe. It is pretty good, it just wasn't thought through. Sales will be fine. And don't worry about being asked to rewrite it. Frankly, management is relieved the manuscript is as good as it is. You know as well as anyone that, once the name of an author is enough to guarantee sales, he can write pretty much whatever gibberish he wants, at any length he wants, and get it all published without cuts. Some authors benefit from this freedom. As for others, well, we all know what happened to Stephen King."
They bowed their heads for a moment of silent remembrance. Then they started on the last two slices of pizza.
"There is one thing I would like to ask you about, though," Laetitia asked as she finished off the crust. "Would you be interested in helping with the screenplay?"
"Are you thinking about film or television?"
"Television, probably. The book has the sort of rambling quality that goes over well in two-hour episodes. There would have to be a few changes, though nothing that is not already implied by the book as it stands. For instance, your text positively invites some new subplots involving Hensley and Croaker's young wife, maybe also the wife and Croaker's teenage son. Incest in prime time; the cable networks will love it."
Wolfe tried even harder not to think about loamy thighs.
Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly