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Books: Dickens was then and this is now

A Man in Full

by Tom Wolfe Cape pounds 20

This is an immense book. It is almost 750 pages long, and embraces scores of characters. Its ambition is appropriately huge. I think it is Tom Wolfe's deliberate play for the title of America's Dickens. Certainly Dickens was never far from my thoughts as I read the whole thing in three days: as in Dickens there is the prospect of failure and shame, there is sentimentality, there is striving for redemption, there is a thin line between wealth and poverty, there an unjust prison sentence, and - exquisitely drawn - the niceness of social pretension. There are even American Dickensian names, like Raymond Peepgass, Buck McNutter, Wismer Stroock and Tigner Shanks. Wolfe has studied the assonances and the absurdities of Dickens's nomenclature. But he introduces another element all of his own, the state of race relations in America. The blacks in this huge book range from the elegant and sophisticated Roger White, a lawyer, to Fareek "The Cannon" Fanon, a millionaire football player from the ghetto. It is a brave and original view of America's black elite and its ambivalence about white America.

But the central character is 60-year-old Charlie Croker, whose size and appetites and nuances of speech are described by Wolfe with enormous gusto. Nobody can rival Wolfe, a product of a more genteel South, in this keen recreation of language on the printed page. Croker, former football star for Georgia Tech, is a property developer in Atlanta who has developed one property too many, the immense Croker Concourse. He owes his bank half a billion dollars and they are closing in for the kill. In the meanwhile Charlie is shooting quail on his 29,000 acre plantation, Turpentine (called "Turmptime" in echo of slave parlance), and trying to impress a Jewish businessman, whose custom he needs desperately, with his wealth, the adoration of his servants, the southern authenticity of his meals, the opulence of his private Gulfstream and the beauty of his young wife, Serena, whom he has recently married in preference to his 50-some wife, Martha. Martha, too, is wonderfully drawn, with all the pain and anonymity her abandonment has caused her.

Croker's good 'ole boy act is failing to impress either his creditors or his wife, but it is one of Wolfe's achievements that he allows Croker a measure of self-knowledge which attracts our sympathy as he struggles in the tightening coils of the bank. The bank give Croker a "workout" which is described with almost sadistic pleasure. How Wolfe loves the flip side of all that American corporate blandness, the vicious implacability of the bottom line. The bank has designs on his plane and his plantation and its chief loan officer, Raymond Peepgass, a timid fellow, while hiding behind the corporate bully-boys, begins to harbour ambitions of his own. Perhaps he can salvage something from the wreckage of the Croker Global Corporation by some underhand dealing. He is himself involved in a paternity suit, which he is losing hands down. The description of this suit, mounted by a Finnish girl, is hilarious, an inversion of all the absurdities of court cases in Dickens.

At the same time, Roger White II, known as "Too White", receives a call from an old friend, the black mayor of Atlanta. One of the leading businessmen - white - of Atlanta, a close friend of Croker, claims that his daughter has been raped by Georgia's most famous black athlete, Fareek Fanon. The mayor wants White to bring Charlie Croker to the rescue. He has knowledge that Croker is in financial trouble: if Croker, ex-footballer himself, can speak up for Fanon, the mayor thinks that he may be able to avoid racial conflagration in Atlanta, and at the same time promise Croker some respite. So we see another Dickensian moral dilemma set up. Should Croker lie to save his empire when the truth is he is something of a bigot who, on meeting him, finds that he hates the arrogant Fanon? The mayor, of course, is playing a double game.

While all this is going on, Tom Wolfe introduces a character out in California, who just happens to work in a frozen food warehouse for Croker Foods, a division of Charlie's conglomerate. The motive here is to show the grinding aspects of American capitalism and to demonstrate a familiarity with the argot and manners of the blue collar, who live in a world of machismo quite as fantastical as the world of the culture-hungry of Atlanta. Wolfe succeeds wonderfully; Conrad Hensley is a Victorian innocent who wants to do the right thing when he is laid off, as a direct result of Charlie's troubles. In a scene reminiscent of Sherman McCoy's wrong turn in Bonfire of the Vanities, he finds himself in the wrong part of town and on the wrong side of the law. In the course of a day which starts innocently enough taking a typing test, he ends up in jail; at his trial he refuses to plead guilty and is sent to a hellish prison where homosexual rape is imminent. Now Wolfe is off again on the organisation and language of cons. Brilliant though it is, I began to feel that, like Charlie Croker, Wolfe had taken on one challenge too many; but of course prisons and unjust sentences are part of the canon.

Now there is an unmistakable sense that the novel is heading for the rocks; we know that all these characters and all these subplots must be tied up, but we have a fear that the task is impossible. Help comes from Epictetus. Hensley, who has ordered a thriller called The Stoics' Game, is given a book about the Stoics by mistake. He takes to it like a duck to water and his new Stoicism enables him to survive the horrors of prison. He escapes during an earthquake and finds his way to Atlanta with the help of an Asian underground network. Wolfe is showing off; we just can't cope with this knowledge of the new Asian America at this stage. Eventually, as a private care worker, Hensley meets Charlie Croker, still wrestling with his problems, and he converts him to Stoicism, the better to face his enemies. This is all so unconvincing and thin that in the last few chapters the book is a grave disappointment. It is almost as if Wolfe simply could not control what he had created and decided to finish it off with this deus ex machina. Of course in Dickens improbable things happen, but that was then and this is now. Another way of looking at this relative failure, is that American realism and Dickensian melodrama don't in the end mix.

For all that, this is a brilliant book - vast, satiric, moving, often profound, and always wildly enjoyable. I couldn't put it down.