The Latest Great American Novel

It's been 11 years since 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' lit up New York. Now, Wolfe is burning in Atlanta.

A Man in Full

By Tom Wolfe

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

742 pp., $28.95

For the characters in Tom Wolfe's new novel, "A Man in Full," it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For us, though, it's just the best of times. America has found its Charles Dickens.

This book is as full of bravado as its brawling hero, Atlanta's most successful real-estate developer. The outlandish Charlie Croker bristles with masculinity, bulges with power, and boasts a back like a Jersey bull.

Bestriding his 29,000-acre plantation, Charlie can't imagine that the cash-flow troubles of his downtown colossus, the Croker Concourse, could ever threaten his one-man empire.

Though it costs millions of dollars a year to maintain the herd of thoroughbred horses, the meadows of quail, and his young second wife, Charlie knows that this antebellum fantasy is the perfect setting for conquering clients. Besides, a real man "deserves a quail plantation." And a few jets.

In fact, this novel is preoccupied with what a real man is and deserves. It will be interesting to watch the critical and popular response to a book that focuses so exclusively on male definition - both physical and ethical - while the few women characters are consigned to the wings or, worse, to ancient misogynist stereotypes.

Meanwhile, the men who fill this novel are memorable types but never clichs. Wolfe knows how to build masculine characters from the outside in, with comic physical descriptions that reveal their personalities. Inman Armholster, for instance, a pharmaceutical baron who built his empire on pills, "seemed to be made of a series of balls piled one atop the other. His buttery cheeks and jowls seemed to rest, without benefit of a neck, upon the two balls of fat that comprised his chest, which in turn rested upon a great swollen paunch."

Wolfe's enormous strength is his ability to tell a story, a skill so basic but missing from a surprising number of so-called "literary" novels with multiple narrators, surreal descriptions, and obscure themes. In this mammoth book, Wolfe has a fantastic yarn to tell, and he races through ironic plot parallels at breakneck speed.

While Charlie intimidates his wealthy guests by wrestling rattlesnakes on the plantation, a sophisticated black lawyer, nicknamed Roger Too White, is meeting with the football coach from Georgia Tech. The coach has a tricky problem: His star player, a monosyllabic thug named Fareek Fanon, perhaps the most promising football player in America, may have raped the daughter of Atlanta's most powerful businessman.

In this racially divided city, the case is a firebomb ready to explode. For Roger Too White, the assignment provides a chance to ascend even higher in the pantheon of White Establishment, while also aligning himself with the forces of Black Power.

He's assisted by Atlanta's politically bilingual mayor, who immediately realizes such a rape case could threaten the fragile peace he maintains between the city's vocal black majority and its wealthy white minority.

Wolfe's panoramic study of Atlanta - from the burnt-out ghettos crawling with junkies to the palatial corporate offices covered with Persian rugs - won't let us forget that the fundamental issue in American society is the relationship between whites and blacks. In "A Man in Full," the plantations haven't receded into the past as we'd like to imagine.

Wolfe keeps wrestling with the moral challenges that modern life presents amid the promise and chaos of so much material wealth.

The white real estate baron watching his empire collapse, the black lawyer grasping for white respect, the bored loan officer fending off an angry mistress, the terrified prisoner fighting for his life - their experiences couldn't be more different. But Wolfe ingeniously forces these paths to converge so that we realize, as one laid-off Croker worker says, "The only real possession you'll ever have is your character."

Only a writer who can handle wit and cynicism as deftly as Wolfe could pull off such a daringly moral novel at the end of the 20th century. Fin de sicle, you've met your match.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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