Book Review: A Man in FullPosted: September 17, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Book Reviews | 2 Comments »
I can’t quite fully explain why, but as a high school student, I was fascinated by the culture of the American South. Perhaps my affinity for the South stems from recollections of my youth, when I lived in Mississippi as a young boy. Although, I don’t fully remember it, I’ve been told that I learned to count with a Southern drawl (My family eventually moved to Michigan and I quickly dropped the accent).
Given my fascination with the American South, it’s not surprising to learn, then, that at the turn of the millennium, I found myself at a college located in the South; Lynchburg College in Virginia to be exact. Although seemingly unrelated, I’ve developed an affinity for Stoic philosophy since I graduated college. So how is this short and personal story of mine all related?
Well, in William B. Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, there is reference made, on more than one occasion, to Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full. After some preliminary research, I quickly learned that Mr. Wolfe, who is largely known as a father of the New Journalism movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, has the appearance of the consummate Southern gentleman (see below). Furthermore, I learned that this novel was set in the South. A novel about the American South, Stoicism, and the state of manhood during the 1990’s? Needless to say, I knew that I had to read this potentially epic novel that would, at least temporarily, satisfy my cravings to learn more about the American South and Stoicism.
At the beginning of the novel, we meet Charlie Croker, who is white and a former Georgia Tech football star turned Atlanta real-estate developer. He is aging and seems to never have lost the arrogance we can only assume he developed in his youth. He struggles to appease his demanding trophy wife, but that’s not all he struggles with. He’s in bad financial shape due to overextending himself in a capricious real estate market.
Throughout the story there are an interesting line up of characters that are introduced. We meet Martha, Croker’s weight obsessed and insecure first wife. Then, a fellow named Conrad Hensley who works at a Croker owned warehouse in California. And we also meet, Roger White II (nicknamed Roger Too White), who is a high powered attorney at one of Atlanta’s top, predominantly white, law firms; he is “a pale-skinned bluebood” who isn’t exactly sure where he fits in.
The central plot is centered around a purported interracial date-rape scandal by Georgia Tech’s current All-American running-back and hero, Fareek Fannon. The victim of the alleged crime is the daughter of a powerful, prominent, and vengeful Atlanta businessman, who happens to be white. It’s fairly easy to recognize that racial politics are a central theme in this 742 page novel. Ultimately, the rest of the story largely explores that state of American culture in Atlanta during the 1990’s.
One of the more graphic (and disturbing) scenes in the novel takes place when Croker and some high society guests visit the Georgia countryside for a weekend. The scene reaches it pinnacle when Croker’s guests are entertained by watching a stud horse violently copulate with a mare who is sexually primed up by human handlers.
What about Mr. Wolfe’s use of Stoicism? Conrad Hensley, while in prison on assault charges, mistakenly and fortuitously receives a copy of a book called The Stoics: The Complete Writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Zeno instead of another book (with the word “stoic” in the title) he had requested be sent to him. Throughout parts of the story, Mr. Wolfe uses the Stoic philosopher Epictetus as a literary tool to interject Stoic wisdom.
Is it possible to define an era, from the male perspective, in a single novel? I don’t know, but Tom Wolfe brilliantly attempts to do so in this book and I think he succeeds. The heavy book, both figuratively and literally, tackles myriad of issues Americana (particularly for American males), including urban race relations, class, power, status, sex, and wealth. I think Mr. Wolfe is to be applauded for taking on such a daunting challenge and for doing it well. This is, without a doubt, a giant and riveting novel that Americans interested in their own culture should read.