'Tom Wolfe's Rooftop Yawp': George F. Will's 1998 Review of 'A Man in Full'

Tom Wolfe
His crackling novel deserves to be news. But America is better than Wolfe's Atlanta. Wolfe/National Endowment for the Humanities

In honor of legendary writer and journalist Tom Wolfe's birthday, we are republishing George F. Will's 1998 review of Wolfe's novel A Man in Full. This review first appeared in the November 23, 1998 issue of Newsweek.

Time was, novels mattered to mass audiences. When Charles Dickens was serializing "The Old Curiosity Shop," New Yorkers gathered at the docks to greet ships carrying London periodicals, and shouted to crew members, "Is Little Nell dead?" Time was, novels shaped common discourse. When young Teddy Roosevelt's growth spurt caused his wrists and ankles to protrude from his suit, his family called it his "Smike suit." Smike is an urchin abused at Wackford Squeers's hellish school in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickelby." When in 1910 journalists asked a TR supporter if the ex-president might run again in 1912, the supporter simply said, "Barkis is willin'." Barkis is the stagecoach driver who courts David Copperfield's childhood nurse, Clara Peggotty, reiterating, "Barkis is willin'." The reference to Barkis was understood by the reporters and their readers.

Today's biggest best sellers sell fewer copies in a year than the Titanic video sold the day it was released. But now comes Tom Wolfe's second great rooftop yawp of a novel, and suddenly a novel is news. It is because it strikes chords of anxiety about the nation's character. Critics said Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities defined the 1980s—Wall Street, Masters of the Universe, race hustlers, carnivorous journalism and other wretched excesses. Critics say A Man in Full does the same for the 1990s. They praise its "realism." But there is more to realism than describing brand names and people behaving badly. Actually, the novel is more caricature than portraiture, although caricature can, and here does, rise to literature. The novel is suffused with a sensibility of the 1950s, the decade when Wolfe was young.

Set in Atlanta, the novel's protagonist is Charlie Croker, a creaky ex-football star whose high life as a real-estate developer collapses under a mountain of debt. Aftershocks engulf people as far away as Oakland. The social soil beneath everyone's feet is, Wolfe suggests, a thin, brittle crust (a humdinger of an earthquake advances Wolfe's story). People are plunged through the crust into chaos by slight causes, such as a stubborn meter maid.

As in Bonfire, Wolfe's subjects are ambition, celebrity, politics, race, class and money. Money is almost a character: Wolfe understands money as living, throbbing, sinewy stuff—pulsing life in the billion-footed beast, America.

Dickens (like Wolfe, a journalist before he was a novelist) could write novels of scathing disapproval, but he was, as Orwell said, "generously angry." Wolfe, whose novels have Dickensien energy and capriciousness, is less angry at than darkly amused by modern America. His is the clinical, mordant, often disdainful amusement of a dyspeptic anthropologist studying a tribe he heartedly disapproves of. But at bottom, and in the end, the book is a high-octane moral judgment and exhortation. No use "driving yourself crazy over possessions," says a chastened and emancipated Croker. You will be a "slave to how you think others are judging you" until you understand that "the only real possession you'll ever have is your character." Wolfe's instrument for Croker's conversion is the stoic Epictetus. Why, when homegrown Thoreau is at hand?

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) were clenched fists waved in the face of postwar conformity. (Both still vindicate Rand's reverence for markets by selling briskly.) They are lumbering, sprawling stories (727 and 1,168 pages respectively), wrapped around Rand's real points, which are political pamphlets in the form of her heroes' philippics. Wolfe, who can write rings around Rand, provides a crackling, multilayered yarn that serves as a huge pedestal for a few concluding pages of evangelism.

Croker passes through the furnace of adversity to freedom, as Janis Joplin defined it—"nothing left to lose." His discovery, and Wolfe's point, is not just that the avaricious have raw nerve endings in all their possessions. Rather, it is that you have something to lose, and hence are unfree, as long as you fret about status and hence are hostage to the opinions of rivals in the status competition.

Wolfe, a Virginia native, wants to make Jefferson's 18th century idea of freedom—individual autonomy—relevant to late–20th century people enmeshed in the joyless pursuit of joy, understood as status conferred by materialism. He resuscitates a 1950s preoccupation voiced then in books like The Lonely Crowd, The Organization Man, The Status Seekers, White Collar and Sloan Wilson's underrated novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The worry was that a nation demobilized from war would be suffocated by a new, soft regimentation of corporate life, mass culture and the dreary temptations of what Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) called "conspicuous consumption."

In The Age of Reform (1955), the pre-eminent American historian of the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter, argued that the political upheaval of progressivism was partly a "status revolution." The professions (lawyers, physicians, clergy, academics), merchants and persons engaged in once-sacred agriculture were provoked, not by shrinkage of their material means, but by changed patterns in the distribution of deference brought about by the rise of big business. By entrepreneurs with animal spirits—by Charlie Crokers.

Wolfe, offering a Nietzschean riff on the role of resentment in an egalitarian democracy, understands the high nastiness quotient in a society in which envy, and hence Schadenfreude, drive a restless search for "more and tastier gloating" about the status slippage of others. The gimlet-eyed Wolfe sees mostly vulgarity (e.g., corporations buying Henry Moore sculptures for instant gravitas) and fatuity (see page 436 for the museum director's artblather in praise of a homoerotic exhibit). His only hero (Wolfe's is a deeply conservative temperament) is a young working-class man whose rebellion against his hippie parents takes the form of powerful longings for bourgeois normality.

But America, seen steadily and whole, is better than this. Perhaps Wolfe's third novel will be a happier—and more realistic—yawp.