A Man in Full
is a novel by Tom Wolfe, published in 1998. It is Wolfe’s second novel, and the much-anticipated follow-up to his first, Bonfire of the Vanities
, published in 1987. As with the earlier novel (and Wolfe’s subsequent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons
), Wolfe uses the techniques and styles of journalism to craft a work of fiction, blurring the lines between hard research and poetic license.
The story opens with Charlie Croker riding one of his prized horses with fellow businessman Inman Armholster, discussing André Fleet, a local activist in Atlanta. At sixty years of age, Charlie is proud of his physical condition and the financial empire he’s built. Charlie comes from humble roots in Atlanta; his father once worked at the plantations he now owns and where he hunts. Charlie was a college football star, known as the “Sixty Minute Man” because he had the physical strength to play all sixty minutes of every game, as well as a combat veteran from Vietnam. He asserts his power and virility through sexual conquest (which has cost him his first marriage) and financial acquisition. He shows off his wealth at every opportunity and owns many lavish properties and other obvious signifiers of his status. But a bet with Armholster reminds him that he’s overextended: An office complex he built with his name on it is bleeding money, and his bankers are circling. Charlie observes his much younger second wife Serena spending time with Armholster’s daughter Elizabeth; he observes both women in an overly lustful way because he believes he is powerless against his own lust.
The scene switches to Roger “Too White” White’s perspective. A prominent black lawyer in Atlanta, he is introduced to Fareek “The Cannon” Fanon by coach Buck McNutter. Fanon is a star player on the football team, but he’s been accused of date rape by Elizabeth Armholster, and Roger is asked to take on the case in order to both protect the team’s star asset and to try to ensure race riots don’t break out as racial tensions simmer over the case.
Raymond Peepgrass, an executive at Charlie Croker’s bank, is well aware of Croker’s financial problems, and assembles a secret team with a plan to squeeze Charlie over his debts so he can acquire the Croker Building at bargain prices. Meanwhile, Charlie contemplates the dizzying depths of his financial troubles and makes decisions to stanch the bleeding, including ordering a round of layoffs at one of his subsidiaries, Croker Foods in California.
This results in Conrad Hensley, dutiful father of two, losing his job at Croker Foods. This sets off a chain of events for Conrad: His car is towed for parking illegally, and he arrives too late at the impound to retrieve. Frustrated, he gets into a fight with the attendants and is arrested for assault and jailed when he refuses to enter a plea bargain.
Charlie is humiliated when Plannersbanc seizes a priceless painting in a very public way in order to pressure him into selling the building. Charlie is approached by the mayor and told that if he, as a white, powerful member of Atlanta society and a former football star himself, publicly praises Fareek Fanon, he will see some relief in his worsening debt crisis. However, his friend Inman is pressuring him to do the opposite in support of his daughter (who is lying about the rape in order to save her reputation).
In prison, Conrad is terrified. His wife sends him the wrong book for entertainment, and he begins to study the Stoic philosophers, which helps him to mentally survive his ordeal, and he comes to believe that the book was sent to him as an act of divine intercession. Conrad’s new confidence puts him in conflict with one of the prison gangs, but an earthquake spares him from their attack and allows him to escape prison, and this only further confirms Conrad’s belief that he is being guided.
Conrad is helped by an underground group who give him clothes and a new identity, and a job as a home healthcare worker. He makes his way east until he is in Atlanta, and is hired on by Charlie Croker, who has suffered a knee injury and is bedridden. Conrad and Charlie become friendly and discuss philosophy, and Charlie is converted into a Stoic and realizes he has been facing his financial troubles with weakness instead of the strength he was once known for. Charlie thus decides not to give into the pressure to praise Fanon, and abandons his financial empire, and he and Conrad walk off together. The outside world sees a failure, a man who has lost everything, but for Charlie this is a moment of triumph as he has reclaimed his former glory as a “Sixty Minute Man.”