Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Vanity in Atlanta


After taking a look at The Bonfire of the Vanities, I decided that it was time to attack Tom Wolfe’s follow up novel A Man in Full, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for over six years now. So it was about time for the task to be undertaken.

A Man in Full is very similar to The Bonfire of the Vanities, except that it takes place in Atlanta instead of New York. There’s a discussion of the absurdity of the self-made man who indulges in his wealth. High society is placed against the struggling society. Race and gender play a role in the way characters think, perhaps even more so as race divisions and potential riots hang over the novel like a spectre.

Charlie Croker owns Turpmtime (spelt as such), a quail-shooting plantation just outside of Atlanta. He’s going bankrupt and the banks that loaned him the money are on his case, looking for him to make his assets liquid. They want his planes (he has more than one!), they want his artwork, they want his horses, they want his plantation. But he won’t give it up. He doesn’t want to lose face.

Enter Roger ‘Too’ White, a lawyer who wants Croker to give a press conference for a star football player from the ghetto of Atlanta, Fareek Fanon (is this a nod to Frantz Fanon?), who has just been accused of rape by one of Atlanta’s most prominent families. Roger has been asked to defend Fanon. With the mayor of Atlanta, who is afraid that racial division might erupt in violence due to this accusation, Roger tries to get Charlie to give a press conference to talk about the upstanding elements of Fanon. The problem is Charlie doesn’t see such elements. In short, Fanon is a punk, doesn’t respect anyone, and there’s no semblance of good within him.

Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, a 23-year-old worker who is a part of Charlie’s food empire as a freezer worker, gets fired when Charlie decides to cut 15% of his staff. Obviously Conrad doesn’t take this well, and ends up in prison for assault after his car is towed. In prison, he finds the philosophy of the Stoics, which is kind of like finding an existential god, and begins practising their edicts. An earthquake destroys the foundation of said prison, and Charlie gets free, finding himself in the Asian underworld, which eventually leads him to the doorstep of Charlie Croker.

Like Bonfire, there’s tons going on. A lot of chance events that are all moving towards some sort of explosive conclusion that becomes deflated. With a title like A Man in Full, all types of ‘manhood’ are discussed. People are judged by their own personal axioms and how they uphold them in the public sphere. When Conrad talks to Charlie about his stoicism, he says:

‘the only real possession you’ll ever have is your character and your ‘scheme of
life’. . . . Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no
one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your
character. Everything else is temprorary and worthless in the long run, your
body included. . . . You know what [Epictetus, the stoice] calls the human body?
‘A vessel of clay containing a quarter of blood.’ If you understand that, you
won’t moan and groan, you won’t complain, you won’t blame others for your
troubles, and you won’t go around flattering people.’

This is just one of the many thoughts thrown at the reader in this novel. Although A Man in Full may not be as fast-paced as Bonfire, it may not have as many exclamation points (although the ellipses are probably on par), it may not have the energy, but I chalked all of that up to the fact that perhaps he’s just describing Atlanta aptly, that it’s not New York, that there’s something else to be appreciated here. Though I’ve never been to Atlanta so I couldn’t say. But overall, it was a hefty, interesting read.


Greg Z said…

I think you and I are two of the very few people who actually did enjoy this book. Loved Wolfe's characters in this one – so despicable most of the time….Loved your review, too!

Salvatore said…

Thanks Greg. I find most of Wolfe's characters – between Bonfire and this one – are so despicable. At least here though there were more chances for redemption – and when redemption was to be had, it was done in such an absurd way that it wouldn't let the characters be seen in a positive light. Impressive all in all. I want to read The Right Stuff now, just to see how it would compare.

J.T. Oldfield said…

I've heard a lot of good things about this book. My mom and sister love Tom Wolfe but I've never gotten around to reading him.

Books in the City said…

I have read this book but not Bonfire of Vanities. I do like Wolfe's books and can also recommend his "I Am Charlotte Simmons"

thanks for this review!

mayceegreene said…

a compelling, entertaining and detailed look
at contemporary American society and the male animal with a criminally
terse conclusion.

Maycee (www.valorjanitorial.com)