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Book News

Out of step with the times?

'A Man in Full'
Tom Wolfe

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95

Review by Wendy Brandes

Web posted on: Monday, November 23, 1998 3:08:21 PM EST

(CNN) -- At its best, "A Man in Full" recalls "The Bonfire of the Vanities." How unfortunate.

Normally, Tom Wolfe is Mr. Zeitgeist. Today's kids, the baggy-jeaned, pierced-eyebrow members of Generation What's Next - raised on MTV, PCs and Mickey D's -- can flash back to the '60s, should they so desire, thanks to his "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Black Power still pops off the pages of "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." Reading about moneyed whites' fetes for black activists in "Radical Chic" is like discovering the "hip" and "cool" of yesteryear preserved in amber .

The '80s had "Bonfire of the Vanities." Bonds! Masters of the Universe! Social X-rays! The Haves and the Have-Nots of New York City! Exclamation points! Love it or hate it, tout le monde read it.

Now it's the '90s, and there's plenty of fresh material: Bill Clinton in the White House, Jerry Seinfeld on television, O.J. Simpson on the lam in a white Bronco. We've got StarTAC phones, Sega-Genesis and DVD. Men are having plastic surgery; laptops are having liposuction (who can carry one of those old-time, seven-pound monsters?). Forget about silicone breast implants. Video-game denizen Lara Croft, today's pinup, owes her popularity to Silicon Valley. Plus, lads right out of school - barely past adolescent acne - are selling shares in their money-losing Internet ventures and turning into paper billionaires.

So, why, Oh why, does Wolfe give us as his protagonist a 60-year-old New South real-estate developer, an '80s figure to the core? Charlie Croker is a bit out of step with the times -- which would be OK if the problems that beset him weren't so much of the previous decade, when the demise of the old-time tax shelters created see-through buildings and wiped out many an arriviste office-tower billionaire.

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Croker is a former Georgia Tech football star who made his nut in Atlanta but at heart is still a good ol' boy from Baker County, "below the gnat line," where he now owns a 29,000-acre quail-hunting spread known as Turpmtine Plantation. Cap'm Charlie's folly is Croker Concourse, which was built too far out in the suburbs to lure anyone to its office tower, mall, movie theater, hotel or dining-club-inside-a-planetarium. He's unable to pay off the huge load of debt he took on for the project. His biggest creditor, PlannersBanc, wants to get back its $500 million, even if it has to seize the disastrous development, Turpmtine, 59 horses, seven company cars, four airplanes and a painting of Jim Bowie and sell them all at fire-sale prices.

The Cap'm tries to bluster his way back to financial health only to find that good ol' boys have gone out of style. Atlanta society craves sophistication and puts on Manhattan airs, exhibitions of homoerotic art and AIDS fundraisers. Over turtle soup at Turpmtine, Charlie guffaws when his buddy Billy Bass, "a big old aging Cracker," jokes, "I can remember plenty a fellows with vernerl diseases, but I don't remember anybody throwin' parties for'm....I don't remember any LET'S RAP FOR CLAP nights! Or LET'S RIFF FOR SYPH!" The New Liberals at the table fall dead silent. By the time the main course is being consumed, the guest of honor and a potential Croker Concourse tenant, health-club magnate Herb Richman, has recovered enough to say that "the quail is really something." "Oughta be!" Charlie bellows in reply. "Each bird cost FO' THOUSAND, SEVEN HUNNERT'N EIGHTY-FO' DOLLARS!" That, he explains, is the annual cost of Turpmtine, divided by the number of birds shot on its premises. Charlie's 28-year-old second wife, Serena, just shakes her head. Still, Richman's interest in Croker Concourse isn't definitively '86'ed till the next day, when Charlie, in a gruesome Freudian slip, introduces him to an employee as "Hebe" Richman.

As he recounts the Cap'm's financial, social and psychological decline, Wolfe takes multiple , and often labored, detours with other characters. There's Martha, Charlie's first wife, who, Wolfe writes, married Charlie for better or worse, unlike Serena, who merely married him for better. Raymond Peepgass of PlannersBanc was dumped by his better half after he impregnated a buxom blonde Helsinki notions buyer. At PlannersBanc sit-downs with Charlie, Peepgass resents and yearns for Charlie's worldly goods.

Meanwhile, Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, a black football star at Charlie's alma mater, faces accusations of date rape after an encounter with the gorgeous daughter of one of Charlie's rich white pals during the Spring Break madness known as Freaknic. One of his lawyers is Roger White II, who obsesses about being called "Roger Too White" during his college days at Morehouse. White is a corporate lawyer, called in because his old frat brother, Wes Jordan, is mayor of Atlanta. Jordan has his reasons for taking interest in the plight of an inner-city black athletic star; he's facing a re-election campaign against Andre Fleet, who is urging African Americans to vote for their "first black mayor" and against the "high yella" political establishment.

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There's yet another major character: 23-year-old Conrad Hensley. Conrad works like a slave, trying to support his young family by hauling frozen foods at a Croker-owned warehouse in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Charlie, back in Atlanta, tries to cut some costs by laying off workers at his food warehouse business, Conrad gets the boot. After various misfortunes, he winds up in prison, where he reads about the Stoic philosophers and comes to worship Zeus.

Wolfe elegantly ties together all these characters at the end (Conrad winds up preaching Zeus to Charlie) but getting to that point can be slow going. The race issues integral to "Bonfire" seem forced here, with the Roger White/Jordan chapters tending towards stilted explication. The conversations about Atlanta, politics and black vs. white often sound as forced as actors' dialogue in detergent commercials. And Roger dwells so incessantly on his "Roger Too White" tag that the words quickly lose their impact.

When it comes to Conrad's plot, the author relies heavily on deus ex machina (in real life, is there ever an earthquake when you really need one?). And he's even lazier with Serena. After countless references to her spending habits, her long dark hair, her luscious loins and her big blue eyes, she simply disappears at the end.

As for the writing, there was plenty of phonetic dialect in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and earlier works, but here it seems Wolfe uses an excessive amount of "What kin I gitcha, Cap?" and "I wan'chall to know that this turtle soup comes from turtles rat'cheer at Turmptine" to compensate for lack of naturalism elsewhere.

Now, I'll tell ya sump'n: "A Man in Full" still has its moments. Chapter 2, "The Saddlebags" is a tour de force. PlannersBanc officials take Charlie to a dingy conference room adorned with a dead plant, hoping to get him to give up some assets while making him so nervous the sweat stains spread under his arms, down his sides and meet in his chest, creating a "saddlebag" pattern. The PlannersBanc guys, incidentally, are known as the Real Estate Asset Management Department (check out that acronym). Wolfe has fun with corporate names. Roger Too White works at Wringer Fleasom & Tick; other law firms are Fogg Nackers Rendering & Lean, and Tripp, Snayer & Billings ...

Another great scene is the Freaknic traffic jam, where black society kids wearing faux ghetto-wear jump out of Chevy Camaros to dance to the boom of rapper Doctor Rammer Doc Doc. But most memorable is a visit to Charlie's breeding barn, where the Cap'm treats Herb Richman and other citified guests to the sight of a stallion -- huge in all ways -- mounting a mare. The scene is lurid, over-the-top Wolfe at his extremely detailed best.

And one thing Wolfe really gets right is Charlie's rehabilitation. The '90s are all about rehabilitation. Think about it: it took Tricky Dick eight years to be rehabilitated the first time, a dozen the second. Slick Willie seems to manage it every six months!

Still, for all his own slickness with comedy and characters, in this book Mr. Zeitgeist is not at the top of his game. Wolfe struggled for eight years with "A Man in Full" and it shows. Maybe he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after Hollywood butchered "Bonfire." Maybe he's exhausted from taking that white suit back and forth to the dry cleaners. Regardless, he better use the next 13 months wisely. I want him to be tan and rested when it comes time to take a whack at the new millennium.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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