Culture > Books

Books: The culture's lone Wolfe

Books | The chronicler of radical chic and trophy wives captures the nineties in his new novel

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

Tom Wolfe keeps nailing American culture. In the 1960s, he chronicled the rise of the counterculture, culminating in his saga of the LSD-addled hippie scene, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). In the 1970s, Mr. Wolfe lampooned the strange affinity the incredibly wealthy often have for left-wing causes (Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, 1970), ridiculed the silliness of modern art (The Painted Word, 1975), and reminded us that there are still heroes after all (The Right Stuff, 1979). In the 1980s, he took on nothing less than New York City and the decade's money-making frenzy (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987). Now he has published A Man in Full, which nails the 1990s and is one of the best American novels in recent memory. Mr. Wolfe's cultural significance can be seen in the new phrases he has contributed to the common language (thus exercising the primal power God gave to Adam of naming), such as "radical chic," "the right stuff," "master of the universe," and "trophy wife." This last expression names the particularly despicable habit of a man who, once he becomes successful, divorces the wife of his younger years-the woman who bore his children and saw him through their years of struggle-to marry some beautiful young thing half his age who thus becomes a trophy of his success. Mr. Wolfe is a throwback to great authors who did not merely express their agonized psyches (like most contemporary novelists), but rather looked outside themselves to make sense of their times. The pioneer of "New Journalism," which uses fictional techniques to write about actual events, Mr. Wolfe has lately turned back to the classic realistic novel. In line with his ongoing critique of content-free modern art, Mr. Wolfe has urged his fellow novelists to give up the angst-ridden introspection of the dull academic fiction that keeps getting churned out; instead, they should learn from Dickens and write about the turbulent, dramatic, and endlessly fascinating social world of the day. This is exactly what Mr. Wolfe does in A Man in Full. The novel is set in today's Atlanta and centers upon a 60-year-old real-estate tycoon. In the course of exploring his trials, we see themes from Mr. Wolfe's earlier work: the trophy-wife syndrome (along with its casualties), rich people feeling they have to be liberal, the social elite ooh-ing and ah-ing over silly art as part of the status game, confusions about race, cynical politics, explorations of "manhood," and the search for moral integrity-the "right stuff"-amidst it all. This novel adds some new dimensions. Mr. Wolfe opens up not only the world of the rich, but the everyday hard work and genuine "right stuff" of the blue-collar guys who work in a warehouse. He paints unforgettable portraits of Asian immigrants, pampered athletes, exercise salons, and the degraded subculture of prison. The Atlanta art museum holds an exhibition of homoerotic art, featuring depictions of prisoners doing homosexual acts. The fashionable cognoscenti are treated to a lecture on Foucault, the French philosopher and sadomasochistic AIDS casualty whose ideas about sex, power, and oppression reign supreme in universities today. Foucault romanticized prisoners, lauding them as cultural rebels and going so far as to say that people who think they are free have merely been conditioned to oppress themselves. Later, Mr. Wolfe brings us into the world of an actual prison and actual prisoners, making it impossible ever to take Foucault seriously again. [Caution: If you are especially sensitive to bad language, stay away from this novel. You can admire it from afar. Mr. Wolfe has an astonishing gift for capturing the very sound of his characters' speech, and he does not shy away from their obscenities. And his realism-especially when he describes the vileness of the prison-is never pornographic, but it can make you wince.] Nearly everybody in Mr. Wolfe's novel has money problems. The hard-working stiff has trouble coming up with the change to get his towed-away car out of hock. The divorced, child-support-paying middle manager finances his social climbing by credit card. "He now had twenty-two different VISA cards, and nineteen of them he had already run out to the absolute limit of their credit line," Mr. Wolfe writes. "His only hope was that yet more unsolicited VISA card applications would arrive in the mail." And ironically, the ultra-rich, with their mansions, plantations, corporate jets, and conspicuous consumption turn out to be in exactly the same situation. Charlie Croker is so leveraged, so in debt, so over-extended that his whole financial house of cards is starting to topple. When his friend's daughter accuses a black superstar athlete of date rape, the Atlanta political machine gives him a chance to save his property, at the expense of what little moral integrity he has left. To help his cash flow, Charlie decides on some lay-offs in a frozen food company he owns, a casual business move that has enormous ramifications on real human beings on the other side of the country. Conrad Hensley-the real hero of the novel-is a good-hearted warehouse employee who desperately yearns for the middle-class stability and moral respectability that his hippie parents thought so unimportant. His losing his job leads to one heart-rending trial after another and to a chain of events in which his fate turns out to be inextricably linked with that of Charlie. In his trials and tribulations, Conrad comes upon a book containing the writings of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. Garbed in references to Zeus and the context of Nero's Rome, Epictetus is preaching control of the passions, rejection of worldly vanities, and the power that inheres in an uncompromising moral character. This ancient wisdom-not New Age paganism such as Conrad's parents must have played with, but an affirmation of the classical (though pre-Christian) notion of virtue-carries Conrad through a series of harrowing experiences. The ancient Romans were once famous for their "republican virtues," until their culture became decadent in its empire-building and Neronic hedonism. The same could be said of Americans. The characters and the culture Mr. Wolfe describes are so messed up that nothing short of providence and conversion can help them. That he uses the theological framework of Stoicism rather than Christianity is a disappointment-though, as Marvin Olasky suggests (see p. 34), it may well be functioning symbolically and as a hidden code to get past the cultural gatekeepers. But the Stoics played a noble role in decadent Rome, setting up the culture with a new sense of the objective moral law that would later help Romans understand the gospel. The old theologians warned Christians against the tri-fold temptations of "the world, the flesh, and the devil." Christians today are pretty much on guard, for the most part, against the sinful desires of the flesh and the occult lures of Satan. But even conservative Christians today often make peace with the world, becoming status-conscious, money-driven, and preoccupied with their own success. Mr. Wolfe's major theme, here and elsewhere, is to analyze "the temptations of the world." Since all satire requires moral presuppositions, Christians (in the absence of large numbers of Stoics) may be his best readers-certainly better than the intellectual and social elite who are the target of his lacerating pen.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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