Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Man in Full

A Man in Full
© 1998 Tom Wolfe
727 pages

Zeus! Send me what trial thou wilt!

A Man in Full is an epic story of individuals grappling with life, facing trials that force them to reconsider their worth and threaten to destroy them utterly, as well as temptations for easy escape and riches. It's primarily the story of two men from radically different backgrounds living across a continent from one another whose fates are bound together as if by destiny.

Charles Croker is a 'bull of a man', a good ol' boy who rose from the backwoods to the boardroom of Atlanta's largest real-estate company through risk-taking courage and brass. His work has shaped the very skyline of Atlanta and made him as rich as Croesus. He revels in his power, success, and influence, and no more so during his grandiose parties at a large ranch where he plays at being the master of a plantation in southern Georgia. He's a man used to everything going his way, but now his latest risk has failed: he's nearly a billion dollars in debt and sliding fast, emboldening those who see in his decline an opportunity for their own success.  Croker's foil is Conrad Hensley, a working man from San Francisco with a sense of honor and personal responsibility who's poor in opportunity. Conrad works in a refrigerated warehouse in circumstances so dire that they make the warehouse's owner -- one Mr. Charles Croker -- shiver in dread from a continent away.  Conrad accepts the brutal work because it means creating a better future for himself, but his hopes are thrown against the wall when Croker decides to institute mass layoffs rather than sell any of his five personal jets. For Conrad, it's the beginning of a tumultous downhill sldie that ends only in prison.

Though there are other characters of note, Croker and Conrad are the central actors whose personalities and lives function as counterpoints for the others. Croker's self-worth is based on his ability to control his circumstances, his accomplishments in doing so, and in the way his forceful personality makes others act around him. He puts great stock in his status as a Leader, as a ruler of men: he expects his trophy wife, children, and 'black retainers' to know their place, and feels pleasure that he, Cap'm Charlie, can take care of them.  Conrad, on the other hand, has never known the privilege of being able to change his circumstances: he only knows that he cannot allow them to get the better of them. He is driven to overcome adversity, to say "YES!" to life, and committed to the struggle. This emotional resilence and self-determination are amplified when he accidentally acquires a copy of The Stoics while in prison and encounters the life of Epictetus, a slave and prisoner-turned-philosophy who taught his students that the only posession anyone has is his or her character.  Isolated in a place seemingly designed to crush spirits, Conrad clings to Epicteus as a life preserver and learns to express courage in the face of a chorus that urges him to submit -- courage that he will later try to impress upon other people, including Charlie Croker. 

Given my interest in Stoic philosophy, this book has been on my radar for quite some time. Its presumed setting in Atlanta's business world turned me off, though, and Charles Croker is an entirely unsympathetic character from the start, whose boorishness does nothing to discredit my prejudices against  business moguls. He begins the book in self-inflicted steep decline, though, and this I watched with morbid interest while wondering what the other story threads about race and Atlanta politics had to do with his or Conrad's stories.  Conrad is the true hero of the novel, standing stall among a cast of spoiled and avarice-obsessed bankers, businessmen, politicans, and high-society members.  While Croker bitterly surrenders to the idea that his fate is in the hands of other people -- after steadily decaying in the midst of debt,  manipulation, confusion, and physical infirmity -- Conrad becomes a devotee of Stoicism and determines that he will be the 'master of his fate, the captain of his soul'*  in spite of his circumstances, being trapped in the violent world of US prisons. Ultimately the stories of Wolfe's various characters converge in triumph and redemption, giving me a satisfying conclusion after a weekend of gripping entertainment.

For this story of trials, character, and redemption alone I would reccommend the book, but Wolfe also has a visceral style that makes his characters, their environment, and their fates seem desperately real -- and often unpleasant. The sheer earthiness of his language and syntax captivated me, and works well to generate pathos. 

Though not without its faults, A Man in Full kept my attention all weekend along, and I'd reccommend it -- especially to those interested in Stoicism.

* "Invictus", William Ernest Henley


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