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

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.