Books: Swinging trickster digs deep in the heart of Dixie

How many more outrageous comic epics can a 67-year-old expect to write? John Sutherland worries that Tom Wolfe has saved the best till last

A Man in Full

by Tom Wolfe

Jonathan Cape, pounds 20, 742pp

MY MAIN anxiety about is actuarial. Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987 when he was 56. This, his second, has appeared at the age of 67. I can think of no other novelist who has started so late, so well, and so slowly. And, alas, Wolfe is not what the insurance companies would call a "good life": he has already had his first serious heart attack.

Despite having taken up fiction at a time when his doctors might well have prescribed nine-hole golf, Wolfe has an uncanny knack: it is what one might call third-age cool. With space-suited Glenn in orbit and vanilla- suited Wolfe at the top of the bestseller list (combined score, 144 years), this must be the year of the swinging old geezer.

makes the polemical point (uttered ex-cathedra by Wolfe in 1989) that the modern novel, like the legendary winky-wanky bird, has gone round in ever smaller circles, eventually disappearing up its own modernity. The genre needs, in Wolfe's analysis, to re-root in its coarse subsoil: the realist novel of the 19th century. And it must address itself not to the mandarins but to the REM generation.

The novel centres on a 60-year-old Atlanta real-estate developer. Charlie Croker has a trophy second wife ("a boy with breasts", his first wife cattily thinks) and a business going belly-up. He owes over half-a-billion to his bank. What saves him? The stoic philosophy of Epictetus - another old geezer with the right stuff.

has the same shape and narrative routines as The Bonfire of the Vanities. The building-block of Wolfe's fiction is the riff. Each chapter revolves around a single vivid episode: Charlie Croker, for example, superintending the mating of his stud stallion First Draw with a luckless brood mare. "Smash! - the stallion came crashing down on the mare's back and drove his enormous penis toward her yawning vulva. The very ground shook beneath Charlie and his band of guests. The quake rattled their innards. The planets collided. The earth wobbled. Sex! Lust! Desperate! Irresistible!" Within the large riff are smaller riffs; typically, a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique marked by ellipses, capitals and exclamations.

The young hero (Arrian to Charlie's Epictetus) is Conrad Hensley. By a crazy series of events which begin with a parking ticket, Conrad finds himself in the "house" (prison) about to be "turned out" (gang raped) by the "Nordic Bund" (white supremacists). Comedy and horror mix, as they typically do in Wolfe. What saves Conrad from a fate worse than ten deaths? The philosophy of Epictetus and an act of God, specifically Zeus (don't ask).

is a more accomplished effort than The Bonfire of the Vanities; Wolfe integrates his narrative better. Yet this novel, like its predecessor, is crammed with incidental goodies, vast cargoes of information caught by Wolfe's journalist eye. We learn what it is like to work in a food- factory freezer unit, so cold that snot icicles droop from your nostrils. And we learn why it is black kids in the 'hood wear baggy pants: "in prison they don't provide belts, and so if your pants are too big you let them ride down".

Contemplating Wolfe's career, one is driven to ask why, at this late age, he has turned to fiction. As a literary vein, the New Journalism is far from worked out (what Wolfe could do with the Lewinsky affair!). The reason, one suspects, is that the novel is the last literary territory where you can write freely (and irresponsibly) about forbidden topics. And the "radioactive" topic is, of course, race.

The plot of derives clearly enough from the OJ circus. A running back at Georgia Tech, Fareek "Cannon" Fanon, is accused of raping a white businessman's daughter. He may have done it. But there is a complicating Desiree Washington/Mike Tyson aspect to the crime. She voluntarily went to his room, as had many other white groupies, under no illusions. Only when surprised by her (white) girlfriends with her panties round her ankles did she indicate any alarm. Fifty years ago in Atlanta, of course, there is no question what would have happened: a good, old-fashioned lynching. 1997 is something else.

Fanon is defended by a Johnny Cochran-style lawyer, Roger White. Nicknamed "Roger Too-White", he is a "beige half-brother", a "wannabe" (as Spike Lee labelled light-complexioned African Americans in his film School Daze). Fanon, by contrast, is a moronic thug from the Hood with diamonds in his ears and half a hundredweight of gold round his neck. He is a very black black ("a jigaboo", to use Spike Lee's other term).

Fanon is no role model for black youth. But Tech needs him for their fund drive. As the football team goes, so do the donations, and Fanon is an All-American, in line for the Heisman Trophy. The black mayor is locked in an election battle with a rival, blacker than he is, and needs a "cause" to bring in the ghetto vote (African Americans make up 75 per cent of Atlanta's inner-city electorate).

Plotting is not Wolfe's forte, and the Fanon business is simply a way of getting to the novel's principal concern. This is the race crisis in America that no white writer outside the licensed area of fiction even dare allude to - let alone be funny about. Comedy, of an outrageous kind, is ensured by Wolfe's choice of hero.

Charlie Croker is, by all the canons of political correctness, a lost cause. He cannot restrain himself from almost saying "Nigra" when discussing his "boys" on his 29,000-acre plantation "Turp'mtime". Croker believes in the "big swinging dick" theory of life. Testosterone is what made America great (a recurrent theme in Wolfe, going back to The Right Stuff). As it happens, although the novel does not linger on the irony, Charlie raped his future wife on their first date. It's a man thing, we understand. Wolfe's cleverest trick is to make the reader actually like this unreconstructed monster.

Fiction and rap music are the only places where the creative artist can now freely use the N-word, and ponder all the baggage that it brings with it. In , Wolfe splatters it around with Mark Fuhrman-like profusion, often putting it in the mouths of otherwise sympathetic characters (the luckless father of the not-raped girl, for example). Doubtless Wolfe will be attacked for his insensitivity (as The Bonfire of the Vanities was attacked). But the central contention of the novel is, I think, incontrovertible. Race relations in American are at boiling point and one of the ways to take them off the boil is comedy. Rap probably helps, as well.

In some ways, the novel is reminiscent of Warren Beatty's new film, Bulworth. There, a white politician has a nervous breakdown. The "bizarre" symptom is that, for the first time in his life, he tells the truth about race relations in America. Beatty's film dissolves into liberal fudge: Bulworth solves the drug problem in LA by buying black kids ice-cream, "dissing" the LAPD, and having it off with a beautiful (light-complexioned) African American who is half his age.

Wolfe avoids the easy solutions, the "happy ever afters" which, traditionally, fiction has used to disembarrass itself. ends with a tart cynicism: the Thackerayan "amari aliquid", or touch of bitterness. This is, indubitably, a long novel. It is also, I think, a great American novel about a big American mess.

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