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Man in Full first editionFirst edition
Novel, 1998
approx. 370,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

Charlie Croker, astride his favorite Tennessee walking horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a deep breath ... Ahhhh, that was the ticket ... He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was.

Great lines

Your first wife married you for better or worse. Your second wife, particularly if you were sixty and she was a twenty-eight-year-old number like Serena—why kid yourself?—she married you for better.

One of the few freedoms we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and deny what is false.

Last line

"Oh, don't worry," said the man of the world. "I'll be back."

Related commentaries
The author

"Deep down he's really shallow" might have been invented for Tom Wolfe's detractors to throw at him. His work is crammed with references to surface appearances.... more

A Man in Full


Half full or half empty?

As always, Tom Wolfe's writing shows evidence of an incredible amount of social research. Even a journalist reading this extremely thick novel has to wonder: how did he learn so many details about the Southern real estate and banking industries? how did he pick up all the ins and outs of racial politics in Atlanta? How could he know so much about California prison life? Or about the corporate art scene? Or about any of the other dozen American lifestyles and social circles he bring into A Man in Full? I mean, not in broad strokes but in picayune detail.

Or, more to the point, how does he know enough to be able get inside the heads of the diverse people in those circles?

Charlie Croker, the megalomaniacal real estate mogul whose empire is about to crumble.

His cast-off first wife who feels herself becoming invisible.

The cutthroat bankers who gleefully plot seizing his assets?

Conrad, the young married factory worker, thrown out of work, into jail and into an ancient religion.

Roger Too White, a black lawyer who becomes enmeshed in a black mayor's attempt to exploit a rape case to win re-election.

There's so much here, nearly fulfilling Wolfe's intent to cover the world with this novel. And he gets much deeper into his characters than in his previous novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. There are moments of not just excitement or plot development—Wolfe's always been good at that, even in his nonfiction—but of genuine pathos.

But there's too much in this book.

Wolfe says he discarded most of the eleven-year's work that was intended to go into this book, but there remain long sections of detail that one skims over quickly to get to the good human stuff. When good ole boy Croker is entertaining urbane liberals (and potential clients who could make or break him) at his plantation, do we have to know every dish served, as well as the history of the place and of every employee there? Do we have to know the nuance of every thought that passes through Charlie's mind? Do we need the entire day's conversation recounted? The characters are drawn well enough and the drama is ripe enough without piling on the minutiae.

The novel is brilliantly plotted though, which keeps you going through all the verbiage and all the swapping of points of view. And it comes together with great consequences for all players.

However, I couldn't help but think it could have come together even better. After the long, careful build-up, Wolfe's resolution, especially regarding Charlie Croker, is rather incredible. The promise of an emotional breakthrough is never fulfilled but is sublimated in a couple of plot twists that avoid working out the issues on an interpersonal level. In the end A Man in Full becomes ironic social commentary.

Which is fine. But it came so close to being more.

— Eric McMillan




Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities

See also:

On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon

Harlot's Ghost

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A Man in Full

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