Running on Empty

Christopher Hitchens

  • A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
    Cape, 742 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 224 03036 1

Like every writer before him who has ever scored a triumph ... Fallow was willing to give no credit to luck. Would he have any trouble repeating his triumph in a city he knew nothing about, in a country he looked upon as a stupendous joke? Well ... why should he? His genius had only begun to flower. This was only journalism, after all, a cup of tea on the way to his eventual triumph as a novelist.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Take it for all in all, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a blockbuster. It rewrote the whole career description of commercial-cum-literary success. And it got people where they lived, if they lived on or near Park Avenue. These days, New York City is becoming a ramified variant of St Louis, Missouri or Des Moines, Iowa: a great big ‘thank you for not smoking’ town, with ‘buckle up’ messages played on automatic tapes in the yellow cabs, and the cheery, kitsch sovereignty of Walt Disney exerted over what was once Times Square and 42nd Street. The golden arches of McDonald’s are to be seen winking near the Bowery, and cops look out for jay-walkers as if patrolling some dire Jim Carrey utopia. The mayor of the city, and the governor of the state, are two mirthless white ethnic conservatives named Giuliani and Pataki. They have restored capital punishment, and encouraged franchising of all sorts while discouraging loitering and littering. Not long ago, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was grabbed outside a funky nightclub, roughed up in the police van, hurled into a cell at the station-house and held down while a guardian of the peace forced a rupturing lavatory plunger all the way up his ass. The foul object was then violently withdrawn, only to be shoved into his mouth (breaking many teeth) and down his throat. This was a hot case, for about ten days.

There has probably never been a less prescient journo-novel than The Bonfire of The Vanities, which subliminally heralded a New York that was given over to wild and feral African politics at one end (reading from north to south of Manhattan Island) and dubious market strategies at the other. The market strategies continue. Indeed, Wall Street has almost deposed the opinion polls as the index of national well-being. The ethnic spoils system, meanwhile, is manipulated by the same class as ever. If either of these elements ever undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, it won’t be Tom Wolfe who sounds the alarm.

Yet, even as he tries to move to another city, and to make the leap from former journalist to actual novelist, Wolfe keeps The Bonfire of the Vanities constantly at hand. It worked once. Why should it not work again?

She wore some sort of go-to-hell white pants that were very floppy in the legs but exceptionally tight in the crotch. Exceptionally! There was an astonishing crevice. Sherman stared and then looked at her face.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

The way she flaunted it all – the way her stretch riding pants hugged her thighs and the declivities of her loins fore and aft – how could you help it?

A Man in Full

This entire apartment, known as a 3½-room in New York real-estate parlance, had been created out of what had once been a pleasant but by no means huge bedroom on the third floor of a townhouse, with three windows overlooking the street. The so-called room he now stood in was really nothing more than a slot that had been created by inserting a plasterboard wall.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

They were living in a duet, a form of cheap housing Conrad had never heard of before he and Jill moved in a year ago ... Duets were rows of small one-storey houses about twelve feet apart, with patchy little strips of yard between them. In each house a wall ran right down the middle, the long way, dividing it into two narrow apartments.

A Man in Full

Steiner had been swept off his feet by a series on country life among the rich that Fallow had done ... It had been full of names and titles and helicopters and perplexing perversions (‘that thing with the cup’).

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Charlie Croker, master builder – Croker Concourse! – checking into a motel on the Buford Highway with a 23-year-old girl – but he had lost his mind to her demented form of lust. Danger! Imminent exposure! That thing with the cup!

A Man in Full

From Masters of the Universe to ‘master builder’. From class-and-race New York to race-and-class Atlanta. From a wrong turn on a Bronx exit ramp to – in the first pages of this new novel – an unsettling traffic jam in the wrong part of town. From ‘boxes of doughnuts, cheese Danishes, onion rolls, crullers, every variety of muck and lard known to the takeout food business’, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, to ‘a huge, cold, sticky, cheesy, cowpie-like cinnamon-Cheddar coffee bun’ in A Man in Full. This last item is an early and seductive scene-setter in the set-piece that all critics have so far simply adored, where Charlie Croker is humbled into perspiration by a gang of sadistic creditors. (‘Saddlebags!’) Yet even this episode is a device for un-springing – or perhaps better say ‘telegraphing’ – the plot. Croker is supposed, when we meet him, to have all his humiliations in the future. He’s supposed to be a mensch. But he submits too meekly; acts the victim too soon; isn’t clothed in sufficient male arrogance to make his subsequent declension into a real thing. The scene-shifters are too visible as the curtain rises.

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