They threw a big party for Tom Wolfe in Atlanta a few weeks ago. It was held at the Piedmont Driving Club, the very same antebellum-era citadel that stands for all that is exclusionary and vile about our class-stratified culture in Wolfe's new novel, A Man in Full. Ah, but the Southern grandees dismissed all that with a nod and a wink as they feted Wolfe, their very own Boswell in duo-tone spats. What fun they had, munching on herb-crusted salmon, sipping chardonnay from Waterford crystal, and toasting the man whose book they came not to bury but to praise. At last they had arrived. Eat your heart out, East Coast elitists!
The fact that Wolfe is getting the star treatment in Atlanta strikes me as a bit out of whack--like Joe Klein, post-Primary Colors, scoring an invite to spend a weekend in the Lincoln Bedroom. After all, A Man in Full does a fairly thorough job of skewering the nouveau riche pretense, the old paternalism, and phony progressivism of the city that's been called the cradle of the New South. So why did more than 3,000 of those New Southerners recently stand in line for over two hours at a local Borders for the opportunity to have Wolfe sign copies of the book?
The answer, I think, can be found in the fact that Wolfe is not by any stretch a social realist; no one will ever confuse him with Upton Sinclair. When Atlantans read A Man in Full, they aren't gazing into a mirror, but falling through Wolfe's looking glass, where characters become amusing archetypes and the world takes on a somewhat hyperreal aspect. And so Wolfe's sharp reportage strikes its targets in the more palatable form of thinly disguised nudge-wink satire.
As was the case with Wolfe's earlier novel, 1987's Bonfire of the Vanities, his latest is essentially a comic morality play overstuffed with characters and subplots, all of which are tied up in a great Gordian knot at the novel's conclusion. But now that the go-go, mondo-capitalist ethos of the '80s has been ratcheted up a few notches, Wolfe, too, has raised the stakes.
Instead of Bonfire's bond trader Sherman McCoy and his $980,000 salary, we get real estate potentate Charlie Croker, a 60-year-old über-Trump who owns a Gulfstream jet, a multinational conglomerate, and a 29,000-acre plantation that he uses only four months out of the year to hunt quail. Croker, however, has borrowed and spent himself into a black hole of debt, and has fallen into a severe identity crisis that not even his twentysomething trophy wife can cure. In Wolfe's universe, Croker isn't just a benighted, delusional millionaire; he's a grotesque, like the overstuffed booboisie you might find in a Hogarth painting.
There's also Raymond Peepgas, a weaselly investment banker trying to claw his way up the corporate ladder; Roger "Too" White III, an African-American lawyer who has been recruited by Atlanta's black mayor, Wes Jordan, to represent Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, a black Georgia Tech running-back who has been charged with raping the daughter of white power-broker Inman Armholster; and a blue-collar sap named Conrad Hensley, who has been laid off from his job at Croker Frozen Foods, the victim of Charlie's capricious belt-tightening.
Using this rogue's gallery, Wolfe lays bare the ugly realpolitik of civic life at the turn of the millennium. Here, status and appearances count for more than real achievement, the chasm between the over- and underclass yawns ever wider, everyone is on the make, and bad karma is just a conference call away. And it's not just the white characters who get caught in Wolfe's crosshairs. His African-American protagonists are also callow sellouts, currying favor with the white establishment for personal gain at the same time as they flaunt a bogus street-cred, lest they appear not to be "down" with their own kind. This is the ugly truth behind race relations in the New South, and Wolfe dishes it out with gleeful cynicism.
Wolfe brings similar exuberance to his typically florid prose. Using dense accretions of detail, Wolfe spins out Technicolor set pieces that will leave you either cringing or chortling, depending on your tax bracket. And his reportorial instincts are as sharp as ever, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one side, you'll probably never have to read another book about Atlanta again. But on the other, there are passages that come off like arid cultural anthropology: Sometimes Wolfe's endless geographical descriptions seem less like a guidebook than a street map. But just when you think you've had enough of Wolfe's discursive detours, he shoots off one of his dazzling flares that illuminates the landscape, and the author is forgiven--in full.