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Quick but not Swift

A MAN IN FULL.\o7 By Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 742 pp., $28.95)\f7

November 08, 1998|RICHARD EDER

Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" exuberantly satirized New York's boom years: the 1980s. His new satire, intermittently exuberant, takes place in the late '90s, when boom is shadowed by bust and the party-givers rub shoulders with the party-poopers: in this case a bank collection team that coldly asset-strips a real estate tycoon with debts of more than half a billion dollars.

Wolfe has moved his setting from New York to Atlanta, heart of the Sunbelt South, where old money and new money swirl together and a rising black class lives in active if often uneasy partnership with the white establishment. "A city too busy to hate" is the motto, but if nothing actively combusts in Wolfe's Atlanta, there are plenty of heartburn and jitters--racial and otherwise--and near-doomsday feverishness.

The new book is a road company "Bonfire." More sprawling and hit-or-miss than its predecessor, it has Wolfe's comically squalid and megalomaniacal characters, drawn with an acutely detailed realism that blurs into hyper reality. It senses just where each latest vanity of the day has got to, takes aim and incises it. His people turn and billow as if pinned to a medieval wheel of fortune; at the same time, he documents them with painstaking social nuance.

As a novelist, Wolfe has been called Dickensian, but at best he is Dickens as journalist and caricaturist. He tackles society head-on, as few contemporary novelists do, and he researches minutely the surface foibles and the lurching tectonic imbalances below.

His characters, like Dickens', are to a greater or lesser degree grotesques; he even shows a Dickensian liking for symbolically contorted names. A leading, predictably slimy figure in the new book is called Peepgass. One greedy law firm is Wringer, Fleasom and Tick; another is Fogg, Nackers, Rendering and Lean.

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. Instead of anger, there is fop's irony; instead of memorable figures, there are targets--even the virtuous ones are targets; and finally there is nobody to move us or even to be remembered. Wolfe's people are cleverly adorned. Like the bumper cars in a fun house, they collide zanily, but they take us nowhere; we go out the same door we came in.

What does remain are dexterity and dazzle: quick-drying qualities. On the cover of the new book, the author's name appears in letters eight times as large as his title. It seems safe to predict that people will refer to "the new Tom Wolfe," and hardly anyone will remember that it has a name, in fact: "A Man in Full." (We think "Bleak House," "Great Expectations," "Hard Times"; only then do we think Dickens.

Wolfe's strength is his riffs; and there are some brilliant ones in "A Man." Charles Croker, the real-estate tycoon, figures in some of them, at least initially. There is a splendid scene in which this flamboyant, up-from-the-red-dirt figure takes assorted guests on a quail shoot on his 29,000-acre plantation (listed for tax purposes as an experimental farm).

It is not just money that sustains the place, with its 57 horses, 36 outbuildings, a battery of black servants and a jet strip. It is the bull-male prowess--an eye quick enough, on a bet, to shoot only the male quail; a barehanded wrestle with an enormous rattler--that Croker uses to out-macho his millionaire guests and show off to his trophy wife.

Even better is the scene of his humiliating ruin by a cold-eyed team of bank "workout" men who take him to an ill-furnished room with a neglected potted plant and bad coffee--so different from the luxurious boardroom and meals to which the bank usually invites him--to go through his assets and demand their disposition. It is the details that tell. As the deliberately crude workout chief grills Croker on his limousines and private planes, his assistants whisper guesses as to when the "saddlebags" will appear: the moment, that is, when the half-moons of sweat in Croker's shirt armpits will spread across his chest.

There are other such riffs, displaying Wolfe's invigorating narrative invention and ebullience: for example, Atlanta's black mayor--one of the few sustained and sympathetic characters in the book--explaining the brutal facts of politics to an uptight black classmate employed at a posh white law firm. There are several vivid scenes involving Conrad, a laid-off employee at one of Croker's wholesale food warehouses.

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