In my review of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” I mentioned the importance of time and place in a Tom Wolfe novel.
“A Man in Full” takes place in Atlanta in the ’90s. Atlanta is an interesting choice. It is the epicenter of The New South, which itself seems to represent the new America in many ways.
Before getting to the story lines in the book, it’s necessary to briefly summarize Wolfe’s explanation of how Atlanta works.
The entire power structure of the city is black. The Mayor is black, the chief of police is black, the city council is virtually all black, etc. (Wolfe actually runs through a list that’s too long for me to type). The city is also about 70% black.
Nearly all of the successful businesses in Atlanta, however, are owned by white people.
This situation, in which all the power is in the hands of one racial group while all the wealth is in the hands of another racial group, would appear to be unstable. What’s most interesting about Atlanta, is that it is stable, albeit very precarious. The stabilizing force is a group of light-skinned, successful, well-educated blacks that are referred to once in the book as “beige half brothers.” I’m going to keep using that term, because it’s awesome.
These beige half brothers invariably attended one of a few black-aristocratic colleges (generally Morehouse for Wolfe’s characters). They sit between the blacks and the whites and keep the peace. They do this in a way that is undoubtedly corrupt but that seems to fall short of outright bribery, as one of them puts it in the book, it’s not as simple as:
“You (i.e. whites) got the money, and we (i.e. blacks) got the power. We want some money.” . . . . “It’s more like: ‘You build us day-care centers, youth centers, health clinics, parks, swimming pools–so we can say to our constituents, “Look what we brought you”–and we’ll see about doing something for you.’ That’s the way it works out.”
As we saw in “Bonfire,” Wolfe is no fan of democracy. The beige half brothers get money from the whites, which they use to buy the black vote and stay in power. With this “get out the vote money” the beige half brothers channel the power of the black community and the wealth of the white community into the (relative and always precarious) stability of Atlanta.
There are two main story lines in the book. The first is set up to be a perfect microcosm of this power structure. The second is meant to criticize some of the excesses of The New South more generally.
In the first story line, the daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest men (Elizabeth Armholster) accuses a young and very successful black Georgia Tech football player from the poorest part of Atlanta (Fareek Fannon) of rape. Roger Too White, the beigest of half brothers, is recruited by the mayor to stabilize this potentially disastrous situation.
In the second story line, the real estate empire of one of Atlanta’s richest men is crumbling due to his excesses. His excesses are debt and divorce.
Let’s turn to each of the major characters for the rest of the story.
Charlie Croker is the sort of guy that built the New South and he’s the main character in the book. As the book begins, his commercial real estate empire is falling apart because he over-built and he can’t attract enough tenants to his new building to make his loan payments.
This fact is a big problem for him, but it’s a bigger problem for his bank. (As Wolfe is writing, banking in the South is taking off – think Bank of America and Wachovia and Sun Trust, etc.).
Charlie is a good old boy. He was a football start at Georgia Tech. He married a well-connected woman and they started a family. Not long before his business problems, he divorced his wife.
The contrast between this book and “Bonfire” on divorce is very interesting. Even though characters had problems with their marriages in “Bonfire” there wasn’t much divorce. In contrast, in this book, everyone is divorced (with one exception, which we’ll get to in due course).
Croker’s character is fantastic (and basically impossible to summarize). His failings, as I’ve said, are debt and divorce. He also doesn’t seem to be able to adapt to the new politically correct world that invades Atlanta as Atlanta becomes more cosmopolitan. For example, he brings a (jewish) businessman to his plantation (yes, he has a plantation!) in hopes of getting the businessman to rent space in his office buildings. His political incorrectness doesn’t go over well with the jewish businessman. At one point, Charlie and his friends are making jokes about a march for AIDS (for example, “Glory me-I got the HIV!”).
(As an aside, gays pop up in relatively unfavorable situations in this book (at the art exhibit, bribing the mayor), “Bonfire” and “Charlotte Simmons (more in a separate review).” I think Wolfe’s take on gays is that they seem to work closely with the media to control the discussion/debate. Perhaps the best way to get Wolfe’s viewpoint on the subject is to read “Ambush at Fort Bragg.”)
Croker’s debt problems are used by the beige half brothers to help resolve the rape case in a way that keeps order in the city. In the meantime, Croker realizes that his life is unsatisfactory and becomes a follower of Epictetus.
In the second story line, it turns out that Elizabeth probably didn’t get raped. She probably wanted to start something with the star athlete but had second thoughts after she was naked on his bed. It turns out that Charlie started seeing his wife under similar circumstances. I could say a lot more on this issue, but it’s the basis of Wolfe’s next novel, so I’ll leave it for now.
Roger Too White
Roger is Wolfe’s quintessential beige half brother. He enjoys fashion, architecture, the symphony(!) and he thinks Booker T. Washington was on to something. As Wolfe points out, supporting Booker T. Washington is basically like supporting George Wallace.
In short, Roger is civilized. Unlike many of his fellow beige half brothers, Roger isn’t comfortable pandering to lower class blacks – at least not until gets a taste for controlling the power of Atlanta.
Through Roger’s character, we learn of the ways that Atlanta really works. He finds the real workings of the city distasteful, and yet as the story progresses, he finds it increasingly difficult to resist the power.
The book ends with Roger considering a run for mayor, which struck me as a very pessimistic – almost tragic – ending. If Roger Too White can’t resist the pull of racial-polarization and pandering, it’s unlikely that any black (no matter how light) can.
Conrad Hensley is a young man who works in a warehouse that stores food for one of Charlie Croker’s companies. When Charlie runs into trouble, Conrad loses his job and one disaster after another follows.
The best way to think about Conrad is to imagine the guy that would be most screwed if Matthew Yglesias were put in charge and allowed to implement all of his policies. Conrad gets a girl pregnant while he’s in high school. There’s no abortion though, Conrad doesn’t even just leave. Instead he stays with the girl, marries her (stays married!), and drops out of school to try to support his family (what an idiot!). Obviously this fails!
Conrad ends up in prison, miraculously escapes and winds up in Atlanta working directly for Croker. Conrad introduces Croker to the writings of Epictetus and they eventually hit the road together preaching on behalf of Zeus.
Peepgass works at the bank that loaned so much money to Croker. Peepgass isn’t the sort of guy who could build a successful business but he hopes to use some (semi-)legal trickery to profit from Croker’s downfall (the 21st Century version of a carpetbagger, perhaps).
In the meantime, Peepgass is going through a very messy divorce. He will potentially owe much more than he makes in child support and alimony. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find him very sympathetic.