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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Man in Full

Tom Wolfe

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To purchase A Man in Full

Title: A Man in Full
Author: Tom Wolfe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 742 pages
Availability: A Man in Full - US
A Man in Full - UK
A Man in Full - Canada
Un homme, un vrai - France
Ein ganzer Kerl - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : a sprawling, relatively entertaining but finally overbaked book.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
America A- 30/1/1999 Ronald Wendling
The American Spectator . 1/1999 John O'Sullivan
Artforum . Spring/1999 Brooks Hansen
Atlantic Unbound A- 2/12/1998 Sven Birkerts
Christian Sci. Monitor A+ 12/11/1998 Ron Charles
Commentary B+ 2/1999 Christopher Caldwell
The Economist . 7/11/1998 .
The Guardian A- 7/11/1998 Martin Amis
L'Humanité . 10/6/1999 Jacques Moran
London Rev. of Books . 7/1/1999 Christopher Hitchens
The LA Times B- 8/11/1998 Richard Eder
The Nation B 11/1/1999 John Leonard
National Review A 23/11/1998 Richard Lowry
The New Leader A- 14/12/1998 Brooke Allen
The New Republic D 14/12/1998 James Wood
New Statesman . 20/11/1998 William Geordiades
Newsweek A 2/11/1998 Malcolm Jones Jr.
New York . 9/11/1998 Walter Kirn
The New Yorker . 9/11/1998 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books B 17/12/1998 Norman Mailer
The NY Times B+ 28/10/1998 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 8/11/1998 Michael Lewis
Partisan Review B+ Summer/1999 Eugene Goodheart
People A+ 23/11/1998 Kyle Smith
Policy Review . 4-5/1999 P.J. O'Rourke
Salon . 12/11/1998 Elaine Showalter
San Francisco Chronicle A- 15/11/1998 David Kipen
The Sewanee Review . Fall/1999 Mark Saunders
The Spectator . 14/11/1998 Francis King
Der Spiegel . 18/11/1998 Thomas Hüetlin
Time A 2/11/1998 Paul Gray
TLS . 27/11/1998 M. John Harrison
USA Today A 2/12/1999 Deirdre Donahue
Voice Lit. Supp. B- 12/1998 Jeffrey Eugenides
Wall St. Journal A+ 30/11/1998 Andrew Ferguson
The Washington Monthly A 12/1998 Matthew Cooper
The Washington Post A 1/11/1998 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but generally positive -- and a considerable number hail it as a masterpiece. Lots of the critics compared it to The Bonfire of the Vanities and lots commented on how other critics had opined.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t has been a while since I have enjoyed a book as much as A Man in Full." - Ronald Wendling, America

  • "A Man in Full is rich in brilliant set-pieces, his usual scalpel-like social observation, fine parodies ranging from rap to Foucault speak, superb fictionalized reporting from the prison and the immigrant underworld, and the fizziest prose around." - John O'Sullivan, The American Spectator

  • "The fact remains: Wolfe's novel -- like Titanic, or any other blockbuster entertainment -- was generated not to express a necessary truth but to capture the attention of the reading public by force. It was written to appeal not just to the general reader but also to what is general (that is, collective) in the reader -- and that is precisely the mentality of Hollywood. Real art (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) never aims at the collective, but addresses itself to the individual, and what makes it universal is that it discovers how the being of one individual in essential ways echoes the being of another." - Sven Birkerts, Atlantic Unbound

  • "Wolfe's enormous strength is his ability to tell a story, a skill so basic but missing from a surprising number of so-called "literary" novels with multiple narrators, surreal descriptions, and obscure themes. In this mammoth book, Wolfe has a fantastic yarn to tell, and he races through ironic plot parallels at breakneck speed. (...) Only a writer who can handle wit and cynicism as deftly as Wolfe could pull off such a daringly moral novel at the end of the 20th century. Fin de siecle, you've met your match." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "That the proletarian hero of A Man in Full should be so much less convincing than the plutocratic one may be evidence that Wolfe is better at writing about the upper echelons of society than about the lower. But whatever the source of the difficulty, his failure to realize Conrad creates a serious imbalance. In a novel devoted to manliness, we get a realistic depiction of only one kind -- and it is a particularly narrow kind." - Christopher Caldwell, Commentary

  • "Mr Wolfe's punctuation may be idiosyncratic, but his ear for corporate gobbledegook is acute. (...) It sounds wildly improbable, yet Mr Wolfe somehow succeeds in making his unlikely hero inspiring and almost believable as he stands up to the denizens of America's criminal underclass. Mr Wolfe might still be wearing the same suit. But something inside has changed." - The Economist

  • "Like its predecessor, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's new novel is fiercely and instantly addictive. It is intrinsically and generically disappointing, too, bringing with it an unavoidable hangover. But a generously mild one, really, considering the time you had." - Martin Amis, The Guardian

  • "Un homme, un vrai est évidemment la saga moderne d'une ville qui a grandi trop vite pour ne pas régler à un moment ou à un autre les comptes avec son passé." - Jacques Moran, L'Humanité

  • "What Wolfe lacks is Dickensian heart, and this is a literary, not a moral, criticism. After the grotesques, the satire, the impalings -- wildly extravagant yet calibrated with aching precision -- not a great deal remains. (...) What does remain are dexterity and dazzle: quick-drying qualities. (...) Lacking heart and with characters the author has attired rather than engendered, the book sinks through the riffs. There are whole sections, particularly toward the end, where Wolfe seems to be writing his way out of a web he has woven only to get caught in." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Me, I miss the shoes. In Bonfire, the class war was symbolized by footwear (.....) In A Man in Full all we get are putty-colored suede Sperry Top-Sider laced moccasins. Are we no longer what we feet?" - John Leonard, The Nation

  • "Is it a novel or is it journalism? Wolfe's prose is so rich and his sense of narrative pacing so perfect that the reader will gulp down chunks of this novel like a tired swimmer gasping for air. It moves. Or, as the punctuation-happy Wolfe might have put it back in the heyday of the "New Journalism," IT MOVES!!!!" - Richard Lowry, National Review

  • "Wolfe's prose is mean, but no one has ever accused it of being lean. Here it is in peak form when the starting gun goes off, but after 500 or so pages it loses all will to live and eventually limps up to the finish line, woozy and out of condition. (...) A Man in Full is a bit like Charlie Croker himself: overblown, musclebound, crude, masculine, smart, honest. Like him, too, it is sloppy and gross yet, finally, a nobler animal than its sleek, cautious young rivals." - Brooke Allen, The New Leader

  • "(O)ne is left with a relentless urgency of tone and style (there is much use of italics and exclamation points, and characters writ large). Still, there is much to be praised: an excellent, if overly fastidious, tour of Atlanta as viewed through the eyes of two establishment black men; the humiliation of a loan defaulter by bank managers; an entire chapter given over to horses copulating. There are clever and satisfying parallels, most particularly between jailhouse talk of sex and shit and the very same conversations between besuited bankers." - William Geordiades, New Statesman

  • "A Man in Full is a much more complex and, yes, despite its length, more engaging novel than its predecessor. (...) Pundits like to talk about the Zeitgeist when they discuss Wolfe, but that's just fancy talk for the world we live in. Right now, no writer -- reporter or novelist -- is getting it on paper better than Tom Wolfe." - Malcolm Jones Jr., Newsweek

  • "What is so curious is that Wolfe thinks his fiction is realistic, and has used it as an example of how the American novel should develop. (...) Wolfe is not in search of realism; he wants hot, brothy journalism. (...) By "realism," Wolfe means the recognizable. His characters are types: each is a special edition of generalities. The hero of the novel's title, for example, is a tediously obvious and uncomplex type (.....) He is a cartoonish sliver of a man, as flat as a wafer. (...) Wolfe's realism, veering between the typologically drab and the monstrously melodramatic, is a set of unreal devices, in which people breathe "stertorously," and think in conveniently spaced ellipses, and have two-page daydreams from which they are always jerked by the reality around them with a neat dash." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "The book has gas and runs out of gas, fills up again, goes dry. It is a 742-page work that reads as if it is fifteen hundred pages long. This is, to a degree, a compliment, since it is very rich in material. But, given its high intentions, it is also tiresome, for it takes us down the road of too many overlong and predictable scenes. Electric at best, banal at worst -- banal like a long afternoon spent watching soap operas -- one picks it up each day to read another hundred pages with the sense that the book not only offers pleasure but the strain of encountering prose that disappoints as often as it titillates." - Norman Mailer, The New York Review of Books

  • "Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. Wolfe's nimble, often enthralling orchestration of several rollicking story lines -- cross-cut cinematically to build tension -- comes to a screeching halt in the last few chapters of this novel. (...) (B)old but flawed." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The novel contains passages as powerful and as beautiful as anything written not merely by contemporary American novelists but by any American novelist. The book has its flaws (what book does not?) and there are things that can and will be said against it. But that is what happens when a writer has the audacity to attempt what Wolfe has attempted: the stuffing of the whole of contemporary America into a single, great, sprawling comic work of art. He may not have quite managed to fit it all in. But he has come closer to doing it than even his admirers could fairly expect." - Michael Lewis, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(Wolfe) is nobody's fool, and he is quick to expose pretension, hypocrisy, malice, greed -- the full inventory of vices. However, the abiding impression the novel makes is of a writer caught up in the sheer dynamism of contemporary life. He has it both ways: as satirist and celebrant. (...) Wolfe is nothing if not readable. His great appeal lies in his cinematic gift for melodrama, which dilutes whatever is serious in the work to the pleasures of a good read." - Eugene Goodheart, Partisan Review

  • "(A)nother insanely entertaining tour of the parallel universes that coexist -- and bizarrely intersect -- in any American city. (...) Wolfe is a peerless observer, a fearless satirist, a genius in full." - Kyle Smith, People

  • "A Man in Full gives such offense to modish sensibilities that the modish haven't yet fully realized how offended they should be. While Wolfe is unfashionable in his method and scope, his real topic is so outre it can hardly be mentioned in polite society. A Man in Full is about church." - P.J. O'Rourke, Policy Review

  • "Wolfe has more than machismo up his sleeve. (...) His survey of decadent end-of-the-century American masculinity is also a quest for religious transcendence, pursued through a trio of larger-than-life protagonists." - Elaine Showalter, Salon

  • "Character names usually make a trusty barometer of imagination in fiction, and Wolfe's are terrific, maybe the best around today. When Wolfe is good, as with the doomed cracker capitalist Charlie Croker and his hapless, nebbishy banker, Raymond Peepgass, he's good; and when he's bad, as with Charlie's biscuit-baking mammy Auntie Bella, he's better." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Characters in this vast, garrulous novel writhe, thrash around and entangle with each other with the frenzied vigour of eels crowded into a basket. But it is none of these characters that provides the book with its protagonist but a nouveau riche city, host to the 1996 Olympic Games, Atlanta. It is when he is writing of this place of boom and bust, stratified like Hong Kong, so that to move up in it geographically is also to move up in it socially, that Wolfe is at his best." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "(E)in ebenso wüstes wie präzises Sittenbild aus dem Amerika der neunziger Jahre. Ein Werk, das dem Leser lauter Schlüsselloch-Blicke verschafft." - Thomas Hüetlin, Der Spiegel

  • "Those expecting another Bonfire may be disappointed -- the new novel is better. It's not quite as glitzy and brash and hilariously in-your-face as its predecessor, but then Atlanta in the late '90s, where most of the action occurs, is a more well-mannered place than New York City was in the '80s. (...) At its heart, A Man in Full is a cliff-hanging morality tale." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "A Man in Full possesses the equivalent of those acid-edged observations like "social X-rays" and "masters of the universe" from Bonfire. But A Man in Full is a superior book because it possesses more heart." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "The quick skewering style that has served Wolfe well in his journalism is often at war with his material here. Time and again he tells the reader what to think. (...) A Man in Full is an ambitious work. It wasn't written by a lazy or timid man. But it's entertaining rather than engrossing, instructive rather than revelatory, willed rather than imagined, sweated out rather than perfected." - Jeffrey Eugenides, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Now, in the most anticipated publishing event of the year (as the flacks like reviewers to say), Tom Wolfe has published another novel, called ... A Man in Full. It's a better title, and a masterpiece, too. (...) (I)n his combination of insouciance and tenacity, his utter lack of world-weariness and his moral courage, Conrad is the most admirable character Mr. Wolfe has ever conjured up. And he allows the author, at long last, to step out from behind a satirist's pitiless objectivity to penetrate to the heart of things." - Andrew Ferguson, Wall Street Journal

  • "This is an extraordinary novel: for its comedy, for its scope, for the way it evokes the Clinton '90s, a time and place of prosperity but relative unease. Bonfire of the Vanities was a warmup act. A Man in Full represents Wolfe at his best." - Matthew Cooper, The Washington Monthly

  • "A Man in Full is a dark, brutal, unsparing book. It has, as one would expect of anything written by Wolfe, its moments of humor and irreverence, and as a work of satire it is utterly on target, but it is written out of deeper and more complex emotions than those that fueled The Bonfire of the Vanities." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       If nothing else one has to admire the publicity Mr. Wolfe receives. A Man in Full was most anticipated novel of 1998, no question. But what was the anticipation about ? Did everyone in their hazy recollections really remember The Bonfire of the Vanities as a good book ? Fun, yes ! But a bit over the top ! And with an exclamatory style that just will not do !
       Is this a better book ? No. The first had an element of surprise, and a better, more complete story. For A Man in Full we are taken to Atlanta, into the life of real estate magnate and former Georgia Tech football star, Charlie Croker. Vast amounts of monies are spent and lost, fortunes and lives big and small made and destroyed. A series of stories intersect throughout the novel: black and white, the hapless and the powerful, and all of it presented with a mighty dose of Stoic philosophy.
       Rape, the subtleties of power and money, issues of race and class, and a detailed examination of horse breeding are all presented, but Wolfe is a bit too deus ex machina and by the time an earthquake shakes one of the characters free we are weary of his all too-artificial plot twists.
       The dandy man in his white suit, whose name dwarfs that of the title on the cover of the book, is an excellent salesman. Too bad his product is his persona (amusing though it is) and not his book. But then his book, by itself, could not attract so much notice.
       Yes, it's readable, an amusing, airy, far-fetched forgettable read that will do for leisure hours. But it is not satisfying, sitting ultimately loosely and limply there, without much point. We always approve when a book gets a great deal of attention, but -- as usual -- we wish the book receiving the attention were worthy of it. Your reading time could be better spent elsewhere.

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A Man in Full: Reviews: Tom Wolfe: Other books by Tom Wolfe under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       Tom Wolfe, born in Virginia, studied at Washington and Lee University, and at Yale, where he received his Ph.D. in American Studies. He is the author of a number of non-fiction works, including The Right Stuff (about the American space program), and two novels.

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