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 The foul object was then violently withdrawn, only to be shoved into his mouth (breaking many teeth) and down his throat.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.

As the book progresses, the scene-shifters don’t even bother to ease themselves off-stage. They hang about, picking their noses and nudging each other to give warning of the action to come. And this is not all that frightfully difficult, since black people en masse can still be recognised, whether in New York or Atlanta, by their signature noise of Unnhhh ... unnhhh, while the susceptibilities of the well-to-do are summoned with equal ease as follows:

‘All of black New York rises up ... Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the 20th century! Do you think money will keep it yours?’

The Bonfire of the Vanities

‘Oh, these black boys and girls came to Atlanta ... tying up traffic, even on Highways 75 and 85, baying at the moon, which turns chocolate during Freaknic, freaking out White Atlanta, scaring them indoors, where they cower for three days, giving them a snootful of the future.’

A Man in Full

Do I accuse Wolfe of dealing in stereotypes; even of recycling the stereotypes he deployed in his last chartbuster? As it happens, I don’t need to do so. He does all the work himself, in the same cartoonish fashion with which he used to illustrate his own ‘status radar’ essays of the Sixties. Not only does the term ‘status radar’ recur here, along with the time-honoured Wolfean word ‘shuck’ (used for discarding a superfluous wife), but he charmingly advertises his own dependence on cliché and received image. Thus the football coach Buck McNutter is ‘a prototypical Southern white boy’, and a grim steward on the Croker estate is ‘the archetype of what the overseers had been’. This certainly economises on characterisation. And, just as Wolfe used to describe keg-sized sportsmen, he repeatedly depicts slab-cut Southern tycoons and other masculine authority figures in this story, often using the metaphor of a welded torso and very, very frequently alluding to the neck that is wider than the cranium. In his mind, mass counts for something. The converse holds, because if a character is named Peepgass he will also be scrawny and ineffectual. Irony, in other words, is not king in these pages.

Wolfe’s declared chief ambition is to have himself described as Dickensian, but it’s not only the names that let him down. (In The Bonfire of the Vanities an old firm is called Dunning, Sponget and Leach; in A Man in Full we encounter a legal outfit entitled Clockett, Paddet, Skynnham and Glote, which reeks of midnight oil, and also of insufficient midnight oil.) It’s a considerable distance from Bauhaus to Bleak House, and one of the proofs – apart from the rib-tickling names – is that, unlike any Dickens novel, A Man in Full is fairly easy to summarise. Charlie Croker is a redneck entrepreneur and former football champ living wildly beyond his means. His bankers coldly decide to foreclose. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city of Atlanta, anxiety is climbing because a loutish black sports-superstar may or may not have date-raped the daughter of another white tycoon. The black city fathers, in an attempt to keep their street cred, propose that Charlie act as a character witness for the sports star, and offer in return to ask the bankers for lenience. With his other hand, Croker orders layoffs at a food-processing plant in his empire, and thus indirectly ruins the life of Conrad Hensley. This young loser, pitched into hell, redeems himself by his exertions and Charlie Croker by his example.

It must be said that there are four or five scenes that really lodge in the memory. The first one (‘Saddlebags!’) suffers from its inept set-up but is strong nonetheless. Two episodes involving beasts – the capture of a giant rattlesnake and the mating of two bloodstock horses – are marvellously written and help ram home, as it were, the point that nature is both earthy and pitiless. Conrad Hensley’s two transfiguring moments, of being exploited and victimised in a frozen-food warehouse and of being set upon in a California penitentiary, are equally vivid. All of these passages, however, involve the same macho chemistry, which defines full manhood as some combination of bluff, bulk, cruelty and defiance. Many of those who relished the paean to Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff had not scanned its antecedent essay, ‘Duelling with Sam and Charlie’, where Wolfe gloatingly celebrated the testicularity of pilots who, between recreational breaks, bombed Vietnam from an aircraft-carrier. All considerations of small, foppish, white-suited, vicarious admiration for violence and for men of action to one side, this version of chivalry and gallantry also has a certain Confederate element to it. Wolfe’s Richmond, Virginia, is far enough north of Atlanta for him to have some fun at the expense of good ol’ boy Georgians, but when he tries to capture the black pulpit-speech of the Reverend Blakey, he does no more than reprise the Reverend Bacon of The Bonfire of the Vanities. His purported eavesdropping on black conversation is beyond embarrassing; perhaps beyond embarrassment. Here is the cynical mayor of Atlanta, Wes Jordan (get it?), as he shoots the shit with the upwardly mobile black attorney Roger White II, who is known to homeboys (get it?) as Roger Too White:

‘But you, Wes? As I remember, you used to laugh at all this Afrocentric business. I remember one night – when was it? – ’87 – ’88 – you made so much fun of Jesse Jackson and his “African-American” pronouncement at that press conference – you remember? – wherever it was – Chicago, I think – that press conference where he started everybody using “African-American” instead of “black”? – you remember that night – you had Albert Hill laughing so hard, I thought he was going to die, and he liked Jesse.’

‘Well,’ said the mayor, cocking his head and smiling more knowingly than ever, ‘times change. Times change, times change, and the polls change.’

‘The polls?’

‘The polls and the focus groups.’

‘You use focus groups?’

Yup, that’s how these people talk all right, when they think nobody’s listening. (If there was anyone listening, a smart lawyer wouldn’t be telling a smart politician what they both already knew, nor would he pretend to that smart politician that he was flummoxed at the mention of such jujus as polls and focus groups.) A few hundred pages later, the two darkies meet again, and broach the forbidden subject of ‘shade’ among blacks in the following forthright manner:

Roger sat bolt upright on the couch, opened his eyes wide, and flashed a big grin. ‘I’ve figured it out!’

‘Figured out what?’

‘What’s different! About you!’

‘Really? You gonna let me in on it, too?’

Roger Too White slapped the side of his leg and grinned some more and started laughing.

‘You’re darker, Brother Wes, you’re darker! What’d you do? How’d you do it?’

‘ ... Been playing a lot of golf recently, Brother Roger.’

‘ ... Well, you sly old dog, you!’ exclaimed Roger Too White. ‘You’re getting ... a suntan – for the election campaign! You’re getting ... darker!’

Wes Jordan winked and chuckled deep in his throat. ‘It just naturally happens to us golf lovers, just naturally happens. And besides, everything is relative. I’ve always been blacker than thou, Roger Too White.’

Eyes wide, big grin flashing ... why not just lob a big slice of watermelon onto the set and have done with it? There’s a certain amount of sanctimony and hypocrisy involved in the new ‘Olympic’ Atlanta. It used to market itself with the cringe-making and boosterish slogan ‘The City Too Busy to Hate’. A splash of satire would certainly be in order. But Amos ’n’ Andy is not satire.

Nor is it realism. In a now notorious open letter published in Harper’s magazine just after the success of The Bonfire of the Vanities (‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel’) Wolfe put everyone right about actuality in fiction. Call him a dandified poseur if you liked, but the planter-suited chap from Richmond was here to say that Émile Zola was the man. Wolfe had emitted earlier diatribes, against modern architecture and – most klutzily of all – against the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, which he described as a ditch of shame. (He still can’t manage to be ‘realistic’ about Vietnam, incidentally: the Indo-Chinese characters in A Man in Full are rendered as toothy, babbling, half-sinister and half-farcical immigrants, a condition they might have escaped if their society had not been so frazzled by those brave extreme-right-stuff bomber pilots and their political masters.) But the call to a gritty new fiction was the weirdest of all. Let’s do some research, people! Let’s get out there and get real! In his acknowledgments to the latest, Wolfe bows to one who has assisted him with ‘the telling details of contemporary American life’, and one wants to say: Hey! We’ll be the judge of that!

The giveaway phrase in the 1989 screed came when Wolfe announced that the great American subject was ‘status modified by personality’. It sounded then, and it sounds now, like rags-to-riches or riches-to-rags; the corniest imaginable scheme, and also the actual scaffolding of this new effort, as indeed of the last one. (You must understand, to appreciate the full effect of Wolfe’s Tiny Tim Toryism, that his Horatio Alger realism was sneeringly counterposed to ‘that longtime French intellectual favourite, the psychological novel’.) Thus, tribulations may come, but men of character can bear them and rise, as Jeeves used to remark to Bertie, on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things. Sentimentality has many guises, but this is, surely, its essential one. Charlie Croker is wealthy, and loses all. Conrad Hensley is dirt-poor and modest, and is hit by tragedy. Indeed, like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he is arbitrarily cast into the penal system, itself reserved for the lowest of the low. But he will not submit. How long until the two men, one rich and one poor, linked by a tenuous thread of fate and destiny, actually meet, and kindle a tiny but affecting mutual spark of deeply human recognition? Not all that long, unless you have to read through it.

In his manifesto of enthusiasm for Zola’s notebook tactics and shoe-leather research (the sort of ‘research’ that he himself so laboriously demonstrates in the agonising White-Jordan dialogue above), Wolfe did not find room to recommend Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. He cited Sinclair Lewis, who is often confused with his near-namesake, but did not even allude to the author who briefly revolutionised American reading habits, and who also made the longed-for ‘crossover’ between journalism and literature. Yet there are some intriguing points of similarity and congruence. The Jungle was initially written as a serial, for the Midwest socialist paper The Appeal to Reason, and has that much in common with some of Dickens and with Wolfe’s palate-testing experiments in the pages of Rolling Stone. It set out to describe the intestines of Chicago, and has that in common with Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. Its intention was to change public opinion, which it did by means of unintended consequence, because Sinclair thought readers would be stirred by the depiction of working conditions and millions of readers were indeed stirred, not to say sickened, by the accounts of how food was produced in the stockyards. (‘I aimed at the public’s heart,’ he ruefully said, ‘and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’ Here was an accidental discovery of the consumer society at which Wolfe has aimed from the start.)

The resemblances, or do I mean correspondences, are astonishing. In The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe referred to the subjected lumpen defendants, delivered daily in police wagons to the Bronx courthouse, as ‘the meat’. In A Man in Full he decides to do meat as a subject in itself. At a gruesome packing plant on the wrong side of the San Francisco Bay, working men fight the zero temperature and the lack of safety regulations and the want of job security. No man knows the other’s wage-scale, and the fear of ‘termination’ turns up as regularly as the pay-packets do. A man who loses his job may well forfeit his home, his family, his pride and his health, all at the same time. Caprice and callousness being the rule, the author can do as he bloody well likes to any wretch caught in this situation. Wolfe certainly gives Conrad Hensley a workout. But when, in a vile dungeon, the victim discovers the Stoic works of Epictetus, he suddenly rises to his full height as a man, or chap.

Whereas, in The Jungle, the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus works in a packing plant for horrible meat, is cheated out of livelihood and home, is subjected to the grossest humiliations, exists on the whim of the foreman and the boss, is terrified by the spectre of unemployment and the jealousies that exist between different grades of worker, and at last achieves redemption by reading the classics of the socialist movement. Not entirely unlike Conrad Hensley, furthermore (one wouldn’t want to spoil such an intricate plot by disclosing any more details), he spends some time as an accidental or coincidental guest in the big home of the big boss. Upton Sinclair at one point describes tough old Jurgis as ‘Prometheus’. Wolfe prefers Epictetus, perhaps because Stoicism is more a matter of individual choice. But, as Morris Dickstein once wrote in a magnificent essay on Sinclair,

in his research and interviews he was able to accumulate masses of clear information not only on the workplace and living conditions but also about machinery, transportation, profit margins, sewage, hygiene, prisons, hospitals, the courts, the political clubs – all the instinitions needed to keep a modern city running. He shows not only how the meat industry and the steel industry operate but also how the machinery of power is greased, how the system of graft and patronage functions, how the bosses, the politicians, the contractors, the criminals and the police work hand in glove.

To say of Wolfe that he even attempted such a standard of realism – let alone reformism – would be an insult to the Zola whose name he so casually drops. We overhear some whispers about the real authorship and ownership of the big bad ‘system’ that enfolds Conrad and his employer, Charlie Croker, and that makes them (of all things) brothers under the skin. Conrad’s parents were ‘hippies’, which naturally gave him a poor start in the race, and Atlanta is run by cynical Knee-Grows. Thus is the occult mask of power torn away! It’s the Sixties that are to blame, again. (Meanwhile, in Wolfe’s actually-existing New York, the forces of order do as they like, and that bankrupt real-estate monarch Donald Trump can treat the skyline as his own without any hint of a nasty creditors’ meeting at any of his numerous and lenient banks.)

There’s only one genuine similarity between Upton Sinclair and Tom Wolfe. Neither had, or has, much time for those who immigrated involuntarily to these United States. Writing in the days when ‘white socialism’ was still thinkable for Jack London, himself and others, Sinclair said of the dark-skinned underclass in Chicago: ‘The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa, and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free – free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.’ Wolfe never misses an opportunity to underline the same point, with staves of barbaric rap music, awful grunts, and wild sexual Saturnalias lurking at every turn of the story. He remembers every now and then to lob a bone of ‘compassion’ into the cannibal stew. But then, who doesn’t these days? He isn’t considerate or realist enough, however, to enlighten us about how to perform ‘that thing with the cup’.

Wolfe got lucky, once, by eavesdropping a Late Sixties party given by conscience-stricken Jews for not very conscience-stricken blacks. He has, at least as a realist but I would say also as a stylist, been running on empty ever since. His self-esteem tank, in bold contrast, has been filled to overflowing. As he instructed us all, in ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast’,

No one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and heroines in Homer, Sophocles, Molière, Racine, Sydney [sic], Spenser, or Shakespeare. Yet even the impeccable Lord Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, confessed to having cried – blubbered, boohooed, snuffled and sighed – over the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. For writers to give up this power in the quest for a more up-to-date kind of fiction – it is as if an engineer were to set out to develop a more sophisticated machine technology by first of all discarding the principle of electricity, on the grounds that it has been used ad nauseam for a hundred years.

There he stands, in all his vulgarity. (It’s even possible to believe that Wolfe hasn’t read of Wilde’s most laboured joke about Nell.) The carnival barker sweeps off his rakish and jaunty panama: ‘If you won’t weep for Hecuba, surely you’ll shed a tear for Mister Dickens here. Roll up, you fine ladies and gentleman, for Lord Jeffrey, known to one and all as “The Impeccable!” Snuffle away – don’t be shy – here’s a hankie! This very show has been performed in front of the crowned heads of Europe! It’s all real: the genuine article!’ Let him paint an inch thick: to this favour he has come.

And that’s before you have the chance to mangle yourself in the mechanistic clauses of his ill-wrought analogy. It’s not just the scene-shifters who are on view in a Wolfean scene. The wires and the flies and the groaning contraptions and contrivances are all on display as well, so that those who find him diverting are quite probably the same people who fancy their Shakespeare without tears.