The best character is the least likeable in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is filled with characters: most of them are unlikeable egomaniacs doing despicable things whose goal is the stereotypical American dream: power, wealth, status, and marriage. A Man in Full is like many of Wolfe’s other books: an almost unfathomable amount of story lines that finally coalesce into a strong full story. Wolfe examines the life of an obscenely wealthy land developer who owns a chain of frozen food warehouses, and how his egotism affects those around him. Simultaneously, the novel’s other major story arc is about a wealthy man’s daughter who accuses the University’s star football player of raping her. She is white and he is black.

This is the third book that I’ve read by Tom Wolfe. Each one deals with the nuances of race: white people who won’t define themselves as racist but reveal themselves as prejudiced and racist. These are people who see themselves as enlightened and would answer, “no, I’m not a racist, I’m not prejudiced.” They have no self-reflection. I want to say that I’m not prejudiced, but it’s naive to say that I’m not. I can’t quite define how I am, but I strive not to be. And reading helps me think about myself in situations I will never experience (based on time, gender, race, geography, class, and skin color).

Wolfe attempts to show the whole gamut of wealth, class, and race. Of course, he can’t include everyone, and one character can’t quite equate a whole people, but he tries, and quite successfully: Charlie, the wealthy white land developer from the deep south, so deep that he retains his slow drawl, the kind that indicates his poor roots, who insists his staff on his plantation call him “Cap’m Charlie.” We have the spoiled, charismatic white girl who accuses the successful black athlete from the “wrong side of the tracks” of raping her.  The respected black mayor and the successful black lawyer, Roger White, who was nicknamed “Roger Too White” (because he’s not considered “black enough”) have some great interactions with themselves and with other characters. There is Conrad, who marries his pregnant high school girlfriend who can’t pay the bills, ends up in jail, and struggles because he is a skinny white boy that the prisoners circle. Martha, the ex-wife of Charlie, who brought him into high society, who made his business connections for him, is left after a young art buyer seduces Charlie. There’s the banker, who loaned Charlie all this money, creating a massive debt that can never be paid, he schemes to connect with Martha and her wealthy lifestyle.

Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

I wanted to write more in-depth about the race in this book, but sadly, it’s taken me so long to write this entry, that it’s been almost two months since I read this behemoth of a novel. I wanted to write about the college football player, Fareek Fanon—possibly the only character true to himself, without any ulterior motives. He just wants to play football, party, hook up with girls, and get an NFL contract. He never pretends to be that which he is not. He is not particularly likeable in this novel but that is because we only see him from the viewpoints of people he is disgusted with—he hates his defense lawyer Roger (because he’s a sell-out and/or not black enough, suspects Roger) and doesn’t try to hide it. Fareek is a young man, at the top of his field, who is angry at the accusations made about him but refuses to dress differently or speak differently to make himself more likeable. However, if he were viewed by different characters’ points of view (say his mother, his coach, his friends), his character would be more likeable. Wolfe’s writing challenges us to form an opinion about a young man much like the current media portrays people today: with a basic snapshot without any research or history. All we know of Fareek’s personal story is that he “grew up…three doors from a crack house in the worst slum in Atlanta, and somehow he keeps his nose clean, or clean enough to go to Georgia Tech, and he becomes an all-American football player known all over the country as Fareek ‘the Cannon’ Fanon.” (Tom Wolfe, 186) And yet, he is the only character who never sells out in this book. It was a conscious decision on Wolfe’s part to not give us much background on Fareek. We learn about him second-hand; never from Fareek’s own point of view. Wolfe allows us to see Fareek as unlikeable in other character’s minds, which challenges the reader to look past the characters’ prejudices.

I really enjoy reading Tom Wolfe’s books. They are easy to read with page-turning plots. They help me look at myself, at society, at corporations, at politicians, sports figures, and at the media. Since Wolfe has a journalist’s background, he gives us a full story with many tiny singular stories—many of which are intentionally one-sided to make us reflect on the truth. After reading one of his books, you feel as though you are quite knowledgeable in whatever field he has chosen to write about.

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