From he-man to holy-man

By Elaine Showalter

Published November 29, 1999 9:20AM (EST)

Look out, America! Here comes Tom Wolfe's new novel -- a million copies in print! A full 742 pages! Eleven years in the writing! Nominated for the National Book Award before publication! It's a blockbuster, a doorstopper, a lollapalooza set in the Atlanta of the Old South and the new black South, the Olympics and Freaknik. And it could have been even bigger. Only recently did Wolfe decide he didn't have "to write the biggest book in the world," as he told Time's Paul Gray. He discarded "bales" of manuscripts -- unused pages on Japan, TV news, insurance sales.
Some fans of Wolfe's previous bestsellers may be sorry, but I, for one, am grateful. "A Man in Full" is already a supersize swig of literary testosterone, Wolfe's exhaustive and exhausting manifesto of masculinity at the millennium. It has subplots about real estate wheeler-dealers, stressed-out bankers, blue-blooded African-American politicians with fabulous suits and priceless collections of Yoruba art, illegal Asian immigrants, superfluous discarded wives and blue-collar workers, but the question at the heart of the novel is what makes a man a real man, a man's man, a man in full. Like his hero Charlie Croker, Wolfe lets us know he has "masculinity to burn." He sorts out the "true Male Animals" from the passive wimps. His preferred men look like bulls or lions, with rippling muscles, thick necks and huge forearms. Black or white, rich or poor, they are combat-ready, eager to turn every business transaction, social occasion and sporting event into a struggle for male conquest. Readers should not be slow to get the repellent point.

But Wolfe has more than machismo up his sleeve. Since the '80s, he has been anticipating a Third Great Awakening, an American religious movement born out of luxury, narcissism and greed. In 1995, Wolfe was predicting a spiritual revival for the millennium. The '90s, he argued, were the decade of moral fever rather than money fever. In August 1996, Wolfe had a quintuple heart bypass operation, followed by a prolonged depression from which he was rescued by Dr. Paul McHugh, psychiatrist in chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and the main dedicatee of "A Man in Full." His survey of decadent end-of-the-century American masculinity is also a quest for religious transcendence, pursued through a trio of larger-than-life protagonists.
Charlie Croker is a fabulously rich, 60-year-old real estate developer with a gorgeous 28-year-old trophy wife. He likes to feel "earthy, Down Home, elemental, which is to say, he was no longer merely a real estate developer, he was ... a man." He wrestles rattlesnakes with his bare hands. He takes his weekend guests to the breeding barn to watch a stallion, penis like a "long, dark evil leather knout," mount a mare in heat. Charlie follows up this Jamesian scene of delicate indirection with a little homophobic homily: "People can talk about gay rats till they're blue in the face ... But there's the heart of it ... That's what it all boils down to at the end, the male and the female, and that's it."

Charlie also struts his stuff in the opening chapter, a quail hunt at Turpmtine, his costly 29,000-acre Georgia plantation, kept going by black "retainers" for the fall shooting season. But the scene -- which resembles a set piece in the traditional English novel where aristocrats still do go off to the country to kill birds -- rings false and eccentric in the American setting. (Walter Kirn, reviewing the novel in New York magazine, complains that "no veteran bird hunter ... would go after quail with buckshot." Talk about one-upmanship.)

Being a full man in macho white Atlanta includes making fun of the AIDS Ball ("Let's Riff for Syph!"). Wolfe juxtaposes satiric scenes of a Mapplethorpish museum opening featuring huge murals of homoerotic prison scenes with a brutal prison rape. Charlie slips up and calls a Jewish client, Herb Richman, "Hebe." He regards women older than 30 as cows with "sagging hides," and his ex-wife Martha "has shoulders like a middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys ... and how often could you get aroused by a forty-some-year-old woman with that much beef in her neck and shoulders and her upper back?" Such thoughts, Charlie tells himself, are "the way the male animal was constituted." Male animals are also constituted to ignore their children, especially if they are female or effeminate, like his sensitive son Wally. At the end of the novel, Charlie's baby daughter Kingsley, by his second wife, actually seems to have vanished, and good riddance to a "pale little creature."

Nevertheless, the reader (presumably male) is expected to identify with and care about Charlie, who is in a lot of trouble. He owes a bundle to the bank, and he is getting scared -- of illness, aging, impotence and failure. Early on, he meets his match in a sadistic financial grilling called a "workout session" at PlannersBanc, where the bank's "saddlebag team" (nicknamed for the shape of the sweat they produce on the victim's shirt) makes him suffer, stammer and promise to sell his assets. Wolfe uses metaphors of Marine boot camp for the scene, in which the bank's chief "drill instructor" flaunts suspenders with a skull-and-crossbones motif. You can almost see this showdown on the big screen, but realistically speaking, it seems crude and sensationalized. Why would the bank's officers go to such extremes to humiliate and insult a big player, even one who owes them millions, in a volatile business where everyone knows that by next week the whipped dog may be eating your sorry ass?
The chapters about black Atlanta are less frenzied and much better; John Updike in the New Yorker even suggests that Wolfe is writing a "Great Black Novel." Wolfe has a great ear for accent, dialect, idiolect and dialogue, and offers an ambitiously detailed cross-section of the new black South through the eyes of the elegant Roger "Too" White -- a fastidious and cultivated lawyer defending a football star accused of rape -- and his friends, including the black mayor. There is a high-spirited chapter about Freaknik, the black college festival held in Atlanta, that recalls Wolfe's best journalism.

But Wolfe is on completely new and strange turf with his third man, young Conrad Hensley, a "straightforward struggler" who emerges as the book's spiritual center and savior. Conrad is laid off his job in the California freezer warehouse of Croker Foods when Charlie has to sell it, and through various mishaps ends up in the Alameda County Jail. His fellow workers and prisoners are lowlifes and brutes who like boom-box rap or violent country metal and admire groups like the Child Abusers singing "Eat Shit," "Pus Casserole" or "Crash 'n Burn."

Conrad, however, is made for higher things. In prison, he begins to think about his soul, starts reading the Stoic philosophers and becomes entranced by the defiance of Epictetus, who had also spent time in prison as a young man. "Only Epictetus understood why Conrad Hensley had refused to accept a plea bargain! Only Epictetus understood why he had refused to lower himself just a rung or two, demean himself just a little bit, dishonour himself just a touch." Inspired by Epictetus, aspiring to be touched by Zeus, Conrad stays cool, defends himself against the alpha-male prison rapist, Rotto, and escapes during a convenient earthquake. Eventually, working as a male nurse, he winds up taking care of Charlie and teaching him the Stoic way: "If you say to a Stoic, 'Look, you do what I tell you or I'll kill you,' he'll look you in the eye and say, 'You do what you have to do, and I'll do what I have to do -- and when did I ever tell you I was immortal?'"

This credo gets to Charlie Croker and helps him make a surprising conversion: "Charlie felt serene. He no longer felt pain in his knee ... He felt tranquil and ... light. His feet only just barely touched the marble and the earth below. He felt as if he could run a hundred yards just the way he had forty years ago. Wouldn't that amaze them all! He had shed all the shabby baggage of this life. He had become a vessel of the Divine." In the name of this newfound divinity, he renounces his worldly goods.

This conclusion seems to have touched the hearts of many of Wolfe's reviewers, who praise the novel's warmth, humanity and depth. But in fact, Stoicism seems to pay off for all its disciples, who are handsomely rewarded for their so-called renunciations. Charlie gives up real estate and becomes a full-time celebrity evangelist for Stoicism, with a TV syndication deal. Conrad is paroled instead of sent back to jail when he nobly turns himself in. In Wolfe's version of Stoicism, pity is a wasted emotion, since everyone is responsible for his own bad luck. Moreover, the ethical enlightenment of Stoicism doesn't require any awkward self-sacrifice or emotional compromises and efforts. Charlie doesn't go back to his first wife, or try to make a real marriage with his second, or even try to be a decent father to his children. Like the classic American hero, he hits the road alone and unencumbered. The young hero of Anne Tyler's novel "Saint Maybe," by contrast, causes his brother's death, and is advised by the pastor of her imaginary "Church of the Second Chance" to drop out of college and take responsibility for raising his brother's children. Charlie's serenity comes from the rejuvenating qualities of shedding the "shabby baggage" of marriage and paternity.

Stoicism is actually a stark philosophy, which insists that everyone has the choice of committing suicide when life is overwhelming, and thus can never be enslaved. But Wolfe's heroes use Stoicism to liberate themselves from convention, responsibility and restraint in the name of "honor" and "manhood." Charlie's conversion barely calls into question the rampant and ruthless capitalism that has run his life. In Wolfe's hands, Stoicism is truly the religion of the entrepreneur, a self-help program for those who swim with the sharks.

Maybe a million aspiring Charlie Crokers will buy this book, but somehow I doubt it. They'll wait for the movie. And next time, Wolfe warns us, he wants to write a novel about universities. "The topic sounds dull," he told Paul Gray, "but I think there are plenty of madcap episodes going on in that field that might be fun to write about." I can already imagine the scene where the sadistic department chair tells the cocky young prof that he won't get tenure: the workout. But the stakes will be a lot smaller, and that might not be a bad thing.

Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter is a professor of English at Princeton University and the author of "Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media."

MORE FROM Elaine Showalter

Related Topics ------------------------------------------