The rot down South


In an age of hype, the celebrity author's personality and array of gimmicks surpasses, even dwarfs, his or her literary merits. Tom Wolfe the spats-wearing journalist may have contributed to the revitalising of a certain form of slick journalism, - topical, zany and inescapably of the moment - but Tom Wolfe the novelist is a far smaller, more mundane creature. At best, his loud, loudly celebrated and amusing Wall Street yarn, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), has its comic moments, but for all his epic ambitions and desire to emulate the great 19th-century European novelists, he is no Dickens.

William Gaddis, an American master of social satire, has no equal and has developed the genre far beyond Wolfe's capacities. Even readers who admired The Bonfire of the Vanities revised their opinion on the publication of Jay McInerney's unexpectedly profound Brightness Falls (1992), which immediately supplanted Wolfe's book as the defining account of 1980s New York.

Now, eleven years on, comes Wolfe's latest foray into fiction. A Man in Full (Cape, £20 in UK) is a bloated, ill-considered cartoon, which efficiently and definitively exposes Wolfe's thin talent, which is stretched transparently thin through these more than seven hundred pages of crude, repetitive prose, as it carries an amateurishly assembled cast of unconvincing caricatures on a featherweight narrative going nowhere. Wolfe has always relied on acid social observation. Imagination is not his strength, nor is story.

Inside this fat, vacuous book lurks a tiny plot overpowered by endless, cliched verbiage. Characters for Wolfe are seldom more than their bodies, their age, the clothes they wear, their vanity. If the novel is obsessed by anything it is male sexuality, and as far as Wolfe is concerned this is expressed through possession rather than sex. Young second wives are pieces of choice meat with "loamy loins" and "perfectly packed" "cloven hindquarters". It is difficult to decide if Wolfe despises women more than men or if he merely loathes humanity. Somehow, this jarring book is both nasty and naive. What surprises is Wolfe's inexhaustible ability to display his clumsy lack of respect for the English language.

Just as Bonfire attempted to chronicle the New York of the 1980s, A Man in Full sets out to evoke the racial melting-pot of Atlanta, newly created metropolis of the centennial Olympics. The problem here is that Wolfe's Atlanta seldom differs from his New York. Wolfe is by birth a Southerner - from Richmond, Virginia, no less - and should be alert to the nuances of his native region. His Atlanta is merely another loud, crazy society populated by the ridiculously rich and the ridiculously poor; the young are sexual animals, the old are obsessed voyeurs, and in between are the middle-aged women desperate to either preserve or retrieve their youth. The central character, Charlie Croker, is a huge man, a former football star who has reached sixty and is now in possession of a sprawling empire, limited intelligence, no manners, and a trophy second wife who spends her time shopping, flaunting her body and sneering at her powerful if pathetic spouse.

"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." Thus Croker - and Wolfe - begins. The theme of Croker's physical size quickly becomes the ruling motif of the book. But then, many of the men are vast, just as most of the females are "slim boys with breasts". Charlie is the sort of guy whose idea of impressing his house guests is inviting them to watch one of his stallions mount a mare. Wolfe lacks the linguistic versatility needed to describe vulgarity, and is frequently just vulgar.

Croker, predictably, is heading for financial ruin. The immensity of his debts is paraded as if they were riches. Even faced with disaster, old Charlie never allows his thoughts to stray far from either his huge body or his wife's tiny, perfect one. In the background is young Conrad, a doomed little fellow married at eighteen and now a father of two, who cannot even park his car without his life becoming a soap opera. And then there is Mr Peepgrass - note the Dickensian name - a banker whose sexual adventure with a bizarre Finnish woman has cost him his wife and his income. He seeks out Croker's first wife, Martha; without a man, she has become a "social ghost", so the arrival of the nervy Mr Peepgrass is a social lifeline. Peepgrass wants her wealth, but can he possibly accept a woman who is seven years older than him and who shows all the "mileage" of her fifty-three years?

Salvation for Croker lies in his agreeing to endorse an obnoxious black football star who may or may not have raped a beautiful white socialite. Will Charlie comply? Who cares? Wolfe repeatedly attempts to make jokes out of Croker's thick accent - "gay rats" for "gay rights". About the best moment in the novel is when Croker frets about his life: "Why couldn't he put an end to it all . . . Dear Lord - take me away! Take me away in the night! I go to bed and never wake up, and it's all over . . . But shit, never wake up? - never wake up, how? I have total insomnia, I never go to sleep . . ." Even so, it is hardly hilarious and by then the reader, having so far trudged through 597 pages of rubbish, deserves a real laugh.

Many mediocre books are published on the weight of a reputation. This one, as ugly to look at as it is to read, is an example of opportunistic publishing at its most compromised. Utterly without merit, it is cheap, overblown, and suggests that the weary Wolfe writing it was as bored as the reader is reading it.