Novel of the week

A man in Full

Tom Wolfe <em>Jonathan Cape, 742pp, £20</em>

Tom Wolfe once described his celebrated new journalism as "a garage sale . . . vignettes, odds and ends of scholarship, bits of memoir, short bursts of sociology, apostrophes, epithets, moans, cackles, anything that came into my head". This will also do as a summary of his two novels: Bonfire of the Vanities, published ten years ago, and now the sprawling A Man in Full. Wolfe still has the journalist's hard interest in the present, in a contemporary cartoonish and media-saturated America.

Wolfe supposedly worked on his new book for more than a decade. The missed deadlines, the huge advance, the last-minute change of locale from New York to Atlanta, the heart attack he suffered - it was as if the process of writing were the book itself, an anguished mark of striving.

There is a lot of plot here. Characters with more than a trace of Robert Maxwell, O J Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Marion Barry and Al Sharpton appear with bewilderingly regularity, and one 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.

In Wolfe's fictional world, men are either small, timid creatures or bursting with muscles - the physical characteristics of the two leads, Conrad and Charlie, are so lovingly described as to become a kind of rhapsodic waxing. Women are ornamental at best; seldom does one make an entrance whose "loins" are not commented upon, whether they be "loamy", or whose arses are either "cloven hindquarters" or "sagging hides".

Sex receives oddly short shrift in so popular an entertainment, and the longest sex scene occurs among three horses. Beyond that, there are two rapes and much rampant masturbation, both male and female. Sex actually gets its own chapter heading, as "God's Cosmic Joke", which entails a deposition of a sex act for the purposes of a paternity suit (one of many strands of the plot that goes nowhere - a frustration for the diligent reader). The one actual, real-time sex scene takes place between a middle-aged couple, whose erotic fantasies involve re-imagining the headless torsos of their previous lovers.

You search the teeming pages of this windy tale for a glimmer of the kind of glossy take that made Bonfire such a commercial and, momentarily, critical success. Unfortunately, all that has come before has been laid to waste. The "masters of the universe" are now rendered "shitheads", the "me generation" have become middle management drones, and the "radical chic" have become indignant wastrels with no idea of how to raise children.

This is a comic novel, a satire that takes on as much as possible - political and sexual correctness, shades of skin colour, new age exercise classes, gay rights, materialism, rap music, dinner parties, free spirits, Internet gossip columnists. It takes on so much, in fact, that it ultimately satirises itself. If no one else is up to the job of slaughtering the sacred cow that Wolfe has become, then perhaps Wolfe can do it himself. "Entire civilisations are founded without any literature at all and without anybody missing it," he writes. "It's only later on when there's a big enough class of indolent drones to write the stuff and read the stuff that you have literature." Quite.

Dwight Macdonald, reviewing Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965, wrote of his journalism that it was "a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric licence of fiction". In A Man in Full Wolfe is still attempting to have it both ways. And as always, we are left with the vision of the Wolfe in sheep's clothing, his face slathered in red, white and blue confectionery.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie