Thursday, August 02, 2018

the second-last book I read

A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe.

Heeeeere's Charlie! Charlie Croker is a larger-than-life real estate mogul based in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixtyish now, he has a long and colourful history of college sports fame, real-estate wheeler-dealering, massive building projects and the obligatory ditching of the supportive original spouse for a leggy younger model. Resonance with present-day events, you say? Tell me more! The best bit is, Charlie has over-leveraged himself on, among other things, a ludicrous vanity high-rise project called Croker Concourse at the unfashionable end of Atlanta and now his creditors are coming after him. Summoned before the loans team at PlannersBanc, to whom he owes countless hundreds of millions, he faces the prospect of losing his country estate, his fleet of Gulfstream business jets and limousines, even his big mansion in the fashionable part of old Atlanta. Meanwhile, disgruntled PlannersBanc drone Ray Peepgass, who's involved in the Croker case, has some ideas about picking up some of Charlie's assets on the cheap via a not-strictly-legal series of shenanigans involving various shell companies and much smoke and mirrors.

It's not all about old Charlie, though. Here's Roger White, an up-and-coming black lawyer, speeding to a meeting with his old college pal Wes Jordan, who just happens to be the current Mayor of Atlanta. Wes has got wind of a potential scandal and wants Roger's help managing the fall-out. A local college footballer, Fareek Fanon, is accused of raping a white girl, Elizabeth Armholster, whose father is a prominent local businessman. Wes doesn't want the incident to result in racial unrest in the city and, regardless of the frights and wrongs of the case, would really just like it to die down and go away as quietly as possible.

At the other end of the social and economic pecking order, here's Conrad Hensley, who works as a picker in the massive freezer warehouses of Croker Global Foods in the Bay Area of San Francisco. It's tedious, gruelling and occasionally dangerous work, shifting massive boxes of frozen stuff weighing tens of kilos onto forklifts, but Conrad is conscientious and good at his job. That isn't enough to save him, though, as there's some ruthless downsizing afoot to help the Croker organisation reduce its costs, and they operate a strict last in, first out policy. So Conrad gets laid off. From this point indignities are heaped unrelentingly on him: having to report for job interviews he squeezes his car into (as he sees it anyway) the end of the legal parking zone, only to come back to find it being towed; on reporting to the pound to retrieve it he has to queue interminably and is then hit with some supplementary charges he can't afford to pay for. At this point he loses the plot, dashes off and breaks into the car pound to liberate his car, beats up a security guard and is subdued and thrown in jail.

Seasoned novel-readers will see where this is going: all these seemingly separate plot strands are going to come together in some way before the end. Charlie Croker and Roger White's stories intersect as follows: Mayor Jordan has decided that it would help defuse some of the feverish speculation over the Fanon case (not that there is a "case" as such since Elizabeth Armholster has declined to file charges) if former Georgia Tech alumnus and football superstar Charlie Croker gave a public statement describing the pressures young high-profile sportsmen are under and calling for calm. If he found it within himself to be able to do this, the city of Atlanta might find it within their power to intercede with PlannersBanc and get them to do something a bit less draconian with Charlie's crippling debts. The trouble is, Charlie moves in the same business and high-society circles as Elizabeth's father Inman, which would make things a bit awkward between them if he was seen to be sympathetic to Fareek Fanon. But, man, he really loves his country estate....

But wait, what of Conrad? Well, he's in prison, trying to keep his head down and not attract any attention from the various gangs of black, Hispanic or white supremacist types who might take over-prolonged eye contact as some sort of slight, or, worse, decide that he's got a real pretty mouth. Meanwhile thanks to a cock-up on the book-ordering front he's been landed with a book of the writings of Epictetus to read; not your standard thriller fare but actually he's really getting into a bit of the old Stoicism. After using a bit of the old philosophy, as well as the massive hands and forearms developed throwing eighty-pound boxes of frozen chicken around, to humiliate white supremacist head honcho Rotto, he is saved from the inevitable retaliation by a massive earthquake in the dead of night that splits his wing of the prison open like a ripe watermelon and allows him to escape. Via a couple of contacts from his days lugging frozen shit around he acquires a new identity and a job working as a care assistant in the Atlanta area, during the course of which he gets a gig looking after this old rich guy who's just had a knee replacement operation, a guy by the name of Charlie Croker.

So we come to the climactic tying-up of plot strands bit: will Charlie agree to make his speech? will his newly-minted friendship with Conrad and their conversations about Stoic philosophy have any bearing on the content? will he still be forced to surrender all his property to his creditors? will Ray Peepgass (who has struck up a bizarre relationship with Charlie's ex-wife Martha) get to execute his nefarious insider-trading scam and get filthy rich?

All of those questions are answered, though not in the way that one might expect, nor, one might argue, in a way that is particularly satisfying or really makes any sense. In a way this doesn't really matter, though; when the cake is as rich and filling (742 pages) as this it doesn't really matter if the last mouthful is a bit crusty and hasn't got very much icing on it. Inevitably (stretching the metaphor a bit) the ingredients in the rest of the cake aren't completely evenly distributed either - the fairly unnecessary sub-plot involving Ray Peepgass (and Charlie's ex-wife Martha, for reasons that are never particularly clear) contains a lot of stuff about how the scam operates and all the corporate smoke and mirrors which is no doubt meticulously researched but fairly uninteresting. It's the same sort of thing as all the Sumerian mythology in Snow Crash or (going back considerably further in my book-reading life) the lengthy sections dealing with the plotting and financing of the African coup in Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs Of War - I've spent months doing all this bloody research so I'm bloody well going to shoehorn it in somewhere, even if it does grind the narrative to a halt. By contrast the prison sections featuring Conrad (who is himself a bit of a problematic Mary Sue in an otherwise unmitigated sea of arseholes) are buttock-clenchingly thrilling, which is great but makes them seem like they've been parachuted in from another work altogether, most likely either The Shawshank Redemption or Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (which I see I've recommended here at least twice before).

I suppose what I (and a lot of heavyweight reviewers, at even more tedious length than me) am saying is: it's huge, flawed, but still hugely entertaining and easy to read despite its intimidating bulk. Very much like, in other words, its predecessor The Bonfire Of The Vanities, with which it shares some major plot points, principally a fascination with the lives and trappings of the super-rich and the device of having one of them, the central character (Charlie Croker here, Sherman McCoy there) brought down and humiliated by his own hubris and extravagance. It was a bit cheeky of Christopher Hitchens to start his review of A Man In Full with a snippet featuring drunken journalist Peter Fallow from The Bonfire Of The Vanities without acknowledging that Fallow was rumoured to have been at least partly modelled on him, as well as Anthony Haden-Guest and no doubt a few others. Indeed Wolfe seems to have a generally low opinion of his journalistic colleagues, most of the ones featured in A Man In Full being badly-shaven scruffy hungover shambling hacks. Perhaps this is just to throw his own real-life penchant for spiffy white suits into sharp relief.

Anyway, it's good, but definitely (just by virtue of its hugeness) falls into the category of books I like to call Projects; others in this list that occupy that category would obviously include Infinite Jest, plus a couple of others on the shelves I really should get to soon. I'd had A Man In Full on the bookshelves for probably the best part of a decade before being nudged into reading it by the prospect of an upcoming holiday with a bit of reading time, but also by Wolfe's death in May of this year. Wolfe thereby avoids the Curse Of Electric Halibut by a few months. Wolfe's only previous mention on this blog was during the course of this post about TC Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain.

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