Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

I enjoyed many parts of this book, but it ultimately committed one of the worst sins and book can commit—it turned out not be the book I thought it was.

Let me explain.

This book has a ton of characters in it. The protagonist is obviously Charlie Croker—a wealthy Atlanta real-estate developer and former college football star, who has tried to work one sweetheart deal too many and is now in debt up to his eyeballs and about to lose everything he owns to the bank.

But who is Charlie’s antagonist? I was convinced that it was Conrad Hensley—a young man of humble means in Oakland, California, who is trying to support a wife and two children by working as an unknown cog in one of Croker’s far-flung business interests. Conrad loses this job when Charlie cavalierly decides to reduce the workforce at some of his corporations in order to raise money to pay his creditors, and Conrad’s life spirals out of control as a result. Through a set of unfortunate circumstances, he alienates his wife, has his car impounded, assaults a security guard at the impound lot, and finds himself serving time in the county jail, where he has to navigate his way past drug dealers, violent felons, and prison rapists. And in jail, through another odd circumstance, he discovers the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, and slowly begins to turn his life over to their teachings.

At this point, I’m hooked. I’m really enjoying the book. I don’t know how Conrad is going to get out of jail and find his way to Atlanta and over master Charlie Croker, the “man in full” who destroyed his life, but with several hundred pages to go, I’m sure it’s going to happen.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. Because Conrad isn’t really Charlie’s antagonist. What feel like a fairly minor character in the rest of the story is, a character named Roger “Too” White—a black lawyer attempting to make it in Atlanta’s affluent and white-dominated society, who’s a friend of the Mayor and who gets brought into a case defending a modern black college football star against rape allegations from the daughter of a white businessman and personal friend of Charlie Croker. Roger and the Mayor cook up a scheme to get Charlie—the very embodiment of Atlanta’s white business community—to speak out on behalf of the black football star, thereby defusing the ugly and very real possibility of a modern-day race riot.

Roger is Charlie’s antagonist, but it doesn’t make any sense that he is. The book would be far better if Charlie and Conrad have the climactic clash in its final pages.

And I think there are clues sprinkled throughout that this clash is destined to happen. The whole titular theme of the novel seems to be driving in that direction. For the first half of the book, Charlie is clearly that “man in full,” his manhood realized in his aptitude and shrewdness in the world of business. Here he is comparing himself to his right-hand finance guy, a much younger man nicknamed “the Wiz”:

Oh, he understood the Wiz a lot better than the Wiz thought he did. The Wiz looked upon him as an aging, uneducated, and out-of-date country boy who had somehow, nonetheless, managed to create a large and, until recently, wildly successful corporation. That the country boy, with half his brainpower, should be the lord of this corporation and that he, a Wharton MBA and financial genius, with “an excellence that cuts across disciplines,” to use a Wizism, should be his vassal was an anomaly, a perversity of Fate, that would in the long run be corrected. He had youth on his side. In the meantime, his resentment rose and fell, and he took a sharp pleasure in rubbing in the old man’s ignorance with these little lectures. Or part of him felt that way. The other part of him was in awe, in unconscious awe, of something the old boy had and he didn’t: namely, the power to charm men and the manic drive to bend their wills into saying yes to projects they didn’t want, didn’t need, and never thought about before. The common word for this was salesmanship, a term the Wiz probably looked down his nose at. Yet the Wiz was in awe of something that was at the heart of salesmanship when the game got up into the hundreds of millions of dollars and it was time to make a decision and act, make your move, even though you could run the numbers all day and they added up only to imponderables and the decision tree was so full of branches, twigs, sapsuckers, and leaves, a mere Wiz couldn’t find the paradigm no matter how hard he looked…And that thing was manhood. It was as simple as that.

And here he is bemoaning the fecklessness of his own son, Wally:

What the hell had happened to all these sons of the rich in Wally’s generation, these well-brought-up boys who went off to the private schools? These damned schools were producing a new kind of scion of the elite: a boy utterly world-weary by the age of sixteen, cynical, phlegmatic, and apathetic around adults, although perfectly respectful and maddeningly polite, a boy inept at sports, averse to hunting and fishing and riding horses or handling animals in any way, a boy embarrassed by his advantages, desperate to hide them, eager to dress in backward baseball caps and homey pants and other ghetto rages, terrified of being envied, a boy facing the world without any visible signs of the joy of living and without…balls…

For Charlie, his identity as a man is inexplicably tied to his virility, and it is this identity that makes him feel invincible when operating in the world of business. The point is made abundantly clear during the scene in the very middle of the book when Croker takes his plantation guests into his breeding barn to witness the mating of two prize horses. Croker feels at one with the stallion, struggling against the beast’s strength and blind instinct to lead him in a controlled fashion towards the mare.

He had made it. He had brought the beast in without looking like an old fool. He felt as if somehow he shared in the stud’s power.

Croker is trying to impress a potential investor with the spectacle of his horses, to show the investor his own prowess and strength vicariously through that of the stallion, and read in that light, Wolfe makes an interesting point when describing the climactic scene itself.

The stallion was no longer the magnificent thoroughbred who just moments before had reared up on his hind legs, trumpeting as if he were the reigning king of all the animal kingdom. His forelegs, those visions of the graceful racing stride when he had won the Breeders’ Cup just a few years before, now hung awkwardly, ridiculously, uselessly, like a pair of vestigial appendages, down either side of the mare’s back. His great neck and head and, above all, his eyes, now looked like those of a demented creature as he tried, over and over, to bite the mare’s neck. His teeth sunk, instead, into the leather mantle that had been placed over her neck and withers for that very reason. Otherwise, in his uncontrollable sexual fury, he would have chewed her raw. All the while, his haunches, his thighs, his buttocks, the seat of the stupendous power that had propelled him, the great First Draw, this great poem in motion, this embodiment of power and coordination, to glorious victories on the track—this magnificent engine was reduced to a single jerky, spastic, convulsive, compulsive motion; rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut. His entire musculature, rippling beneath his hot black hide in the shaft of sunlight, indeed, his very hide itself, every ounce of his one ton, his three million dollars’ worth of horseflesh, was now a hopeless, helpless slave to that single synaptic impulse: rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut, rut—while a sexual valet, and Australian elf, with his bare hands steered the rut-mad penis into a yawning vaginal canal, and an army of human beings, mere Lilliputians, pushed and shoved, and a little red-bearded conductor waved his arms about, and the lot of them, man and beast, careened twenty, thirty, forty feet across the barn’s dirt floor with thousands of pounds of rut-lust momentum.

It seems the sexual act unmans the “man in full.”

But Charlie is an aging man, and this virility is beginning to fade, and with it his own confidence in his ability to perform. Charlie divorces his wife and marries a much younger woman as a hedge against this decline, but her youth only paints a starker contrast for Charlie of his own diminishment.

But that was the thing… At fifty-five or fifty-six you still think you’re a young man. You still think your power and energy are boundless and eternal! You still think you’re going to live forever! And in fact, you’re attached to your youth only be a thread, not a cord, not a cable, and that thread can snap at any moment, and it will snap soon in any case. And then where are you?

And there’s this telling passage, where decline in business success is actually tied in Charlie’s mind to growing old and feeble.

But of course; she was young. Life was still a long, adventuresome climb up a hill. She had no clear idea what she would see at the top, let alone of the grim slide that awaited on the other side. Foreclosure, default, repossession, bankruptcy, phantom gains—all of it extending down into the gloom of a crevice, which was old age.

Charlie is falling apart at work. He is no longer the master of every situation and the stress begins to wear on him.

It wasn’t just the insomnia. Every day in this office—events propelled him in this direction and then whiplashed him back in that direction. One minute he’s in a sweat lying to creditors, double-talking creditors, hiding from creditors, and yes, even he, Cap’m Charlie Croker, beseeching creditors, beseeching like a drowning dog—and the very next he’s got to shift gears, recircuit his whole central nervous system, put on a whole new face, become a big, happy, hearty personification of confidence, omnipotence, charm, and trust, and talk people into leasing millions of dollars’ worth of space in a tower that had no business standing up forty stories high out in Cherokee County in the first place.

And his adversaries, the bankers who want to repossess his properties, they’re still “men in full”—men in the prime of their lives, full of vigor and vitality. One, in fact, decides that the situation with Croker is his long overdue opportunity to take some risks and run with the big dogs.

He, Peepgass, had gone to the Harvard Business School, whereas Croker couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on a bet. But Croker had something that Monsieur Raymond Peepgass did not possess—or, rather, something he had never been willing to let off the leash… A certain red dog… That was the way he suddenly thought of it; as a red dog you had to be willing to let off the leash… He could see that wild red dog… It had a chain around its neck, but the chain was broken… It was a red bull terrier with its forehead in a dreadful frown and its lower incisors bared and thrust forward… Every man had that red dog inside him, but only real men dared let him loose—

And eventually Croker is a impassive lump, lying in bed after knee replacement survery, feeling sorry for himself, incapable of making a decision.

And while all this is going on, Conrad’s world is being destroyed and he is building a new philosophical foundation for himself in the tradition of the ancient Stoics. He gets hooked in his prison cell, when he discovers Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who had been sold as a slave by his parents and started his life stripped of everything—his family, his possessions, his freedom.

Now Conrad couldn’t read fast enough. He leafed through the pages to find this man Epictetus’ own words… Book I, Chapter I: “On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power” …and he came upon this passage: “To ye prisoners”—prisoners—“on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, what says Zeus? Zeus says, ‘If it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions (those trifles that you prize) free and untrammeled. But as things are—never forget this—this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. I gave you a portion of our divinity, a spark from our own fire, the power to act and not to act, the will to get and the will to avoid. If you pay heed to this, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none.’”

And then Epictetus said: “We must die. But must we die groaning? We must be imprisoned”—we must be imprisoned! he said!—“but must we whine as well? What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that. You say, ‘I will imprison you.’ I say, ‘My bit of body, you mean.’ You say, ‘I will behead you.’ I say, ‘When did I ever tell you I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?’ It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that Zeus, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. ‘For what purpose?’ you may say. ‘Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat—”

This is a philosophy diametrically opposed to Croker’s mastery of others through the vigor and vitality of manliness. The concept of being imprisoned is foreign to Croker. In his world, he has always been the jailer, not the jailed. Indeed, here’s how he reacts to the struggle of the nonconformist when it is described at the opening of an art exhibition he attends:

“How fitting it is”—

Charlie looked about to see if everybody else heard what he was hearing. But even Billy’s and Doris’s heads were turned in a polite blankness toward the podium.

—“that Lapeth chose the prison as the subject matter of the art treasures we see around us tonight. As Michael Foucault has demonstrated so conclusively in our own time—the prison—the actual carcerel, in his terminology—the actual center of confinement and torture—is but the end point”—

Who? thought Charlie. Michelle Fookoe? He looked at Serena, who was turned about in her chair drinking in every word as if it were ambrosia.

—“the unmistakable terminus—of a process that presses in upon us all. The torture begins soon after the moment of birth, but we choose to call it ‘education,’ ‘religion,’ ‘government,’ ‘custom,’ ‘convention,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘Western civilization.’ The result is”—

Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing or am I crazy? thought Charlie. Why wasn’t somebody at one of these many tables hissing?—or something—

—“a relentless confinement within ‘the norm,’ ‘the standard,’ a process so”—

Oh, how he twisted those words norm and standard! Such passionate contempt!

—“so gradual that it requires a genius on the order of a Foucault—or a Lapeth—to awaken us”—

Fookoe again.

—“from the torpor of our long imprisionment. Lapeth chose to join the outlaws—those who want out—those who refuse to be confined by convention—in prison. Even within prison walls, of course, our society does not relent. Even incarceration, as Foucault has pointed out, is called ‘correction’ in our enlightened time. The outlaws are supposedly ‘corrected’—bent back toward the norm—when, in fact, in so many cases it is they who are in a better position to correct us in the ways of independence and”—

Charlie looked about again. This table, the next table, the table next to that—people with absolutely untroubled countenances, as if the man were making the usual, entirely appropriate remarks that one makes on an important civic occasion.

—“and fulfillment.”

It is incomprehensible to Croker. But not to Conrad. Conrad learns to see the reality that surrounds from this new perspective—from the perspective of the jailed—and he realizes how constructed the jailer’s reality is—constructed largely by the Charlie Crokers of the world, who have the power to shape the world through the meat and muscle of their fellow men, but who ultimately have no power over their minds—what Conrad comes to see as the divine spark of Zeus that resides within each person. Indeed, that illusion of control is permanently shattered for Conrad after the earthquake destroys the jail and allows him to escape.

He glanced off to the side. Camp Parks appeared to be dancing in a madhouse of light beams and shadows. All in shock, the whole lot of them! The earth had risen up and shown them how helpless they actually were. Life was anchored by—nothing at all!

So now I’m ready—ready for the confrontation of Conrad and Croker, the confrontation of philosophies, anxious to see which Wolfe will decide to let win. But now the story begins to drag. This 700+ page book is 200+ pages too long, but Wolfe evidently needs them to get Conrad plausibly from the status of an escaped prisoner in California to a home health aide with a fake identity in Atlanta. And, as I said before, he needs them to tear Croker down from his perch above all other men and make him a helpless invalid, hiding from the world and unwilling to make any more decision. These are the circumstances that bring them together, Croker requiring home health services to help him recover from his surgery.

But Conrad doesn’t destroy Croker—he rescues him! He passes on Zeus’ revelation to Croker and, in so doing, gives Croker the stoicism necessary to accept the forces aligned against him as ultimately incapable of harming who he is inside. And that impels Croker to action—finally agreeing to the press conference arranged by Roger “Too” White (remember him? he’s the antagonist) and the Mayor to rescue the reputation of the college football star and prevent a race riot. Croker does it, but he does it on his own terms, telling the truth about the football star (he’s an arrogant unlikeable prick who’s been coddled all his life and thinks the world owes him) and losing everything he owns (the deal for Croker would have erased all his debt and allowed him to keep his mansions and office buildings). But that’s all okay, because he is still, and maybe more so, a man in full. As Conrad explains by example:

“I’m glad,” said Conrad. “remember Agrippinus, the Stoic who refused to act in Nero’s play?”


“I don’t think I ever mentioned what happened to him. Several friends came by his house and they told him, ‘Your trial’s going on right now in the Senate.’ Agrippinus says, ‘Oh? That’s their business. It’s time for me to take my exercise.’ Then he singles out one of his friends and says, ‘Come on, let’s go exercise and then take a cold bath.’ So that’s what he does. When he gets back to the house, more people are there, and they’re saying, ‘They’ve reached a verdict!’ And Agrippinus says, ‘Which is?’ ‘Guilty.’ Agrippinus says, ‘What’s the sentence, death or exile?’ They answer, ‘Exile.’ Agrippinus says, ‘My property—confiscated or not?’ They answer, ‘Confiscated.’ ‘Thank you,’ says Agrippinus. Then he turns to his friend. ‘It’s time for dinner. Let’s go dine at Acicia.’ Which they did.

“Charlie—there was a man.”

Yes, I suppose. But there is also an unsatisfying ending.


  1. Just fineshed this book and couldn;t this book and I couldn't agree more.The characters you want to suffer and come undone don't!This book reminds me of my marriage.Starts off ok.Goes abit iffy but you stick with it hoping it will right itself.Alas when it finally ends you not only feel disappointed but wish you hadn't bothered starting it in the first place.What happens to Charlie at the end is totally unbeleivable.You feel like you have been robbed.

  2. Glad you agree. It was a fun read in a lot of ways, but it just doesn't deliver the goods.

  3. Good analysis. I think I can add some context. While writing the book, Wolfe had a quintuple heart bypass operation, followed by a major depressive episode (a common side-effect of bypass surgery). He finally told himself to just wrap it up, which is why the last 100 pages aren't as good as the majority of the book. The early chapter "In the Breeding Barn" might be the most amazing piece of prose Wolfe ever wrote, which is saying a lot.

  4. Thanks for that context, Steve. It may explain why the last two hundred pages seem to have little narrative consistency with the first five hundred. And although I haven't read any other Wolfe, I can believe that "In the Breeding Barn" is among his best. It's certainly among the best prose I've read.