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A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe

reviewed by Scott Butki

Tom Wolfe reminds me of a good, focused studious portrait artist - he can draw an excellent picture of whatever it is that he sees before him.

Unfortunately, that's exactly the problem with his new tome, "A Man in Full."

No doubt about it, Wolfe is an excellent journalist: he describes all of the nuances a reader might want to know, from how a room looks to how characters enunciate their words.

That works just fine in non-fiction or "new journalism" because than you can blame the subject matter if it is boring or uninteresting to the readers.

But this book is fiction and parts of the story seem so forced, so artificial, so contrived, that it's quite saddening, really.

In "The Bonfire of the Vanities" Wolfe told a fascinating story. Maybe it was because the timing was right for a story capturing elements of 80's society. Or maybe it was just great writing. Either way, the story about the greedy stockbrokers and the people he called the "masters of the universe" captivated many people, including this reviewer.

And so, after almost a 10 year wait, readers looked forward to Wolfe's second novel. Perhaps there was no way it could meet the hype, the anticipation, the tons of glowing reviews from fellow journalists. It hasn't.

The book centers on Charlie Croker, an Atlanta millionaire in arrears. Poor Croker has knee problems, perhaps stemming from his glory days as a college football star. He's also a racist bigot but he genuinely seems to want to do the right thing. It's just that his idea of the "right thing" involves helping himself and his problems.

When offered to do that one thing - help stop a potential race riot in Atlanta - he has a dilemma. If he speaks out in support of a cocky black running back for the Georgia Tech football team accused of date-raping a white woman than Croker can quell some potential problems. In return, the Atlanta mayor will pull some strings and the companies trying to collect on money owed by Croker will suddenly become much less aggressive.

However, Croker is friends with the millionaire father of the alleged rape victim and does not want to go back on his word. What to do?

Seems a bit over the top, right? More like a soap opera than a Wolfe novel?

It gets worse. One of the other plot lines involves Conrad, a down on his luck young man who gets fired from his job in a Croker Global Foods warehouse in Oakland when Charlie decides to downsize.

Without giving too much away let me just say that Conrad goes to jail over some misunderstanding, providing Wolfe a chance to try to describe prison life.

Eventually, of course, Charlie and Conrad become friends and Conrad explains that he has found peace in his life due to a book he received in prison about the Stoics.

Weird, yes? Believable? Ha! But there it is in a nutshell. And the ending is even worse.

There are some scenes which are fascinating and show glimpses of Wolfe's talent and brilliance but they are few and far between.

I like Wolfe. He's fascinating to read about and I love reading interviews with him but this book needs something, maybe a trimming of at least 100 pages or a replacement of entire plot lines.

If you're trying to decide whether to spend a month or two reading this 742-page book, I'd advise against it. If you want to read a good book dealing with news and race relations, check out Richard Price's "Freedomland" instead.

Otherwise, you may well find yourself reading each page wondering if it is going to get better only to find yourself increasingly disappointed.

b i o
Scott Butki is a reporter for the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md. He has written book reviews for The Mystery Zone, The Sun City News and the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. Believe it or not, he likes most books he reads but usually hates the endings.

Tom Wolfe - A Man in Full
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