Immaculate conceptions

by John Walsh
  • @johnhenrywalsh
When Tom Wolfe turns up at a bookshop it's An Important Event. When he writes a novel it's a publishing phenomenon. `A Man in Full' - his follow-up to `Bonfire of the Vanities' - has been described as the most anticipated novel of the decade

A sense of occasion accompanies Tom Wolfe everywhere like a bodyguard. Wherever he appears - a bookshop signing in Manhattan, a reading before 600 fans in the Hay Festival marquee - the place becomes A Significant Venue. Whatever he's doing, it seems unquestionably An Important Event. Watch him come through a door or walk on to a stage and you understand the meaning of "charisma". He doesn't swagger or swan about; his movements are as precise and mignon as his small feet, encased in their black-and- white spats; but he radiates grandness, heft, consequence.

Since the late Sixties he has worn only white, or more accurately ice- cream, suits, until it's become his trademark. A masterstroke of image- marketing, the suit has made him world famous among people who read his books; it has identified him as a dandified outsider, beyond the criticism or parody of ordinary mortals; and it suggests a dozen moral virtues that can be reduced to one word: immaculate. He is the uncorrupted one, the chap who sees through everything and reports the world to you, straight.

We met in the billiard room of a stately home in Wales. He entered to a silent fanfare, heard only by dogs and awed interviewers. I shook hands with a slight, slender figure, looking 10 years younger than 68, with the manners of a Mandarin diplomat. His hair was lustrous and floppily side-parted, his cream suit spookily immaculate, the waistcoat glowing.

"I like to promote the name of my tailor," said Wolfe kindly. "A man in New York called Vincent Nicolosi. He's Italian but been in America for years. Yes, they're all hand-made. I never play golf or tennis, so it's my only vice."

Clearly, Mr Wolfe had me down as a fellow dandy, a charismatic visionary like him. He gazed with interest (and obvious envy) at my attractive brushed-cotton black two-piece suit from Blazer, with the missing button, the collapsing pocket and the stray white hairs on the lapel. We sat down. Wolfe flicked an imaginary speck of dust from the knee of his right trouser- leg. I found a small smear of impacted chewing-gum in the same spot on my own, and picked at it moodily.

Time magazine ran a cover feature on Wolfe last autumn calling his new book "possibly the most anticipated novel by any author in this decade"; and it's a tricky proposition: how do you do a follow-up to The Bonfire of the Vanities? His first novel (at the age of 57) went global, sold in umpteen millions, became a rotten movie and was spoken of as changing the direction of the American novel, returning to the grand narratives of Dickens, Zola and Balzac. The Bonfire was, critics said, an elegy for the Eighties. Eleven years later, what would Wolfe do for the Nineties?

The answer is A Man in Full, a 700-page narrative of extremes and fundamentals, set in Atlanta, Georgia, where Charlie Croker, a property mogul, basks in phenomenal wealth, runs a 29,000-acre quail plantation and wakes at 3am worrying about half a billion dollars of debt. The novel inspects the deals made by politicians across Atlanta's boiling racial divide, and the fate of an idealistic blue-collar worker called Conrad, laid off from Charlie's wholesale meat plant, who falls through the legal system like a bad angel until he winds up in jail.

Why Atlanta? Why property? "Everything in this book began with my discovery of the plantations," said Wolfe. "Before that, I thought the final extreme of conspicuous consumption was owning your own jet. But when I started hanging out with the plantation owners, and learning about their extreme wealth, I knew it had to be the core of the book. And one thing I discovered was that you don't become a plantation baron by having money. You have to be `man enough' for the job."

Masculinity is a condition constantly explored in the novel - being tough, being in control, using your hands, your shotgun, your intellect to protect your own and whack the opposition. In one not-very-subtle symbolic burst, Charlie even wrestles with a 6-ft rattlesnake. Had Wolfe originally wanted to write about manliness? "In my mind there was a horizontal part of the novel which was Atlanta, and a vertical theme which is the business of what a real man is. I tried to show gradations of manhood, from weak to physically tough men; and by the end of the book, I wanted the reader to wonder whether the true `man in full' is Charlie, or Conrad, the man who refuses to compromise..."

I said I was impressed by the vastness everywhere in the book: big acres, big shoulders, big hi-fi speakers, big tits, big debts, big factories, big weights, big snakes... Is this the Phil Spector syndrome, in which a slenderly built, creative chap gets his own back on the jocks at college by constructing a wall of sound - or, in this case, a wall of words? Wolfe smiled. "I never thought of it like that. But everything in America tends to move towards vastness of scale. The bigger and bigger corporations, the taller and taller buildings, the ever more massive skyline."

Many critics have complained about Wolfe's fiction in the 11 years since The Bonfire - how he's really writing only well-researched journalism, obsessed with surfaces. John Updike called A Man in Full "entertainment, not literature". Norman Mailer reviewed it with infinite condescension. Wolfe in return called the two most distinguished men of letters in America "washed-up windbags". And he defends his unfashionable dictum that the novelist has a duty to write about his own time rather than his private angst. "It's important for the novelist to bring alive what Hegel called the Zeitgeist. He thought every era has its own moral tone, that presses down on everyone living at the time. So many novels in the first half of this century made that their mission, and tried to capture the spirit of the age. Like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath." He used to read Steinbeck voraciously, "though when I reached Harvard I was informed by the local literary establishment that he was an unsophisticated fellow. As one professor said to me, `He very much needed a friend with taste'..." A friend like Wolfe, for instance.

He was born in 1930, as the Depression began to grip the southern states. "We weren't badly hit. It wasn't like the Dustbowl. My father, an agricultural scientist, always had a job through that period. We were comparatively well off, but by no means rich. We owned our own house. We had a backyard where my mother did the gardening, but it wasn't the back lawn of Blenheim House." Was it growing up in the Depression, I wondered, that had made him fixated by acquisition, so finely tuned to the price and value of things?

"No, I don't think so," he said, disobligingly. "I was pretty well unaware there was a Depression. It wasn't the way my parents presented the world to me. I wasn't conscious of all that. The main thing I remember is that tramps - these days we'd call them `the homeless' - would come by our kitchen door, and my mother would give them sandwiches. They seemed to pass the word around in tramp circles that you might get sandwiches."

He's always been Mr Zeitgeist. His first work was capturing the flavour of the Sixties. It was an epic decade for him, as wave after wave of social phenomena (hippies, Black Power, radical chic, Warhol girls) lined up for his sardonic inspection, and he found a writing style - full of apostrophising, repetition, looping fantasy and exclamation marks - that was dubbed "the New Journalism".

"In my view, the big news of the Sixties was not the war in Vietnam, it was the throwing aside of formalities that had been a screen for society for at least 1,000 years. Small things, like the way the faculty began dressing worse than the students. Or attitudes to debt. When I was growing up, I was told that getting heavily into debt was not just unwise, it was immoral; it meant you were unable to hold back your appetite for immediate gratification...You became persona non grata. By 1970 the word `leverage' was being used, and getting into debt up to your eyeballs was a business strategy."

Mr Wolfe does not quite shake his head in despair at the iniquities of the modern world. He is too cool an operator to admit to old-fashionedness. Instead he gives his characters - especially Charlie the tycoon and Conrad the young blue-collar worker - a licence to bitch about modern music, noise, grossness, the rudeness of children and the bloody cheek of trophy wives who answer back.

"I hate authors who talk as if their characters were real, but I really loved Conrad's attitude," he said fondly. "No fooling; just draw a line between good and bad. I wanted a character who's out of step with modern times, someone who rejects the dissolute past of his hippie parents who just `went with the flow'..."

Mr Wolfe has never been a man to go with the flow. In spite of all temptations to join the mainstream, to dress or write or think the same way as the crowd, he remains steadfastly objective. He tells an illustrative tale about refusing to listen to the cooing voice of the Devil. When writing about hippies for what became The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he spent time with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, friend of Kerouac and Cassidy, leader of the Merry Pranksters, who rode across America in a magic bus. "I always had a notebook and ballpoint pen... after a month, Kesey said, `Look, why don't you put the notebook and pen away, and just be here for a while, become a part of it, experience what we experience, and then write about it later on?' I thought about it all night, then went along next day with my notebook and ballpoint pen. Kesey said nothing. The message was obvious. I just didn't want to live that life."

And there he is, 30 years later: Wolfe the recording angel, the aloof, dandified commentator, observing a society bent on crazed expansion, and making sure to keep his perfect cream suit free of ink marks.

`A Man In Full' (Cape, pounds 20)