A Man in Full; Tom Wolfe, 1998
This is a book about greed, race, power, and failed real estate development.
Protagonist and antihero Charlie Croker, epitome of the white southern cracker, is a prominent, yet fading, Atlanta real estate developer. He thinks a lot of himself. Gazing out over the Atlanta skyline from aboard his private plane, he mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” No, he’s not currently running for president.
Charlie is old school. He can’t relate to a changing world, as evidenced by his annoyance with the term “paradigm shift”: “The damned word meant nothing at all, near as he could make out, and yet it was always ‘Shifting,’ whatever it was.”
As a developer, Charlie has a particular disdain for planners: “Nobody could object to Planners: even the most dysfunctional welfare case in the Capital Homes could be a planner.”
He isn’t much fond of architects either: “From his perspective on board his private plane over Atlanta, he knows the Atlanta skyline by the builders, not their architects…what were architects but neurotic and ‘artistic’ hired help?”
Charlie’s masterwork on the outskirts of Atlanta, an edge city middle finger to Atlanta’s downtown, proves to be his undoing. Joel Garreau’s, Edge City provided the inspiration for this failed development: “Edge city…Charlie closed his eyes and wished he’d never heard of the damn term…another developer had given him a copy of a book called Edge City by somebody named Joel Garreau. He had opened it up and glanced at it—and couldn’t put it down, even though it was 500 pages long. He had experienced the Aha! Phenomenon. The book put into words something he and other developers had felt, instinctively, for quite a while: namely, that from now on, the growth of American cities was going to take place not in the heart of the metropolis, not in the old Downtown or Midtown, but out on the edges, in vast commercial clusters served by highways.”
Wolfe describes Atlanta’s ambition to be a world center and outlines the racial motivations behind the city’s path of development, including its history of corruption, urban renewal, and the Olympics.
Wolfe’s insights on urban development don’t stop in Atlanta. In this book, he outlines the iterations of an eastern Costa County, California, city from New York West, to Black Diamond, to Pittsburg. The other protagonist and true hero of A Man in Full, Conrad Hensley speculates that the next name for the city will be 7-Eleven: “It was now one vast goulash of condominiums and other new, cheap housing. The only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchises started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot. The new landmarks were not office towers or monuments or city halls or libraries or museums but 7-Eleven stores.”
Tom Wolfe is known for stories that define an era. What Bonfire of the Vanities did for greed in 1980s New York, A Man in Full does for real estate empires collapsing under the weight of their own debt in the 1990s. For those of us still reeling from the not-so-great recession of more recent times, this story is still pertinent.
Wolfe rolls in the weeds with his characters, providing the details that give context and understanding to a subject. After reading A Man in Full, I can now honestly say that I know more about working the night shift in a cold storage facility than I ever thought I wanted to know.
Wolfe is often credited with pioneering the New Journalism, a style of reporting similar to the Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. He has been known to shadow his subjects over extended periods of time, a reportorial approach he calls “saturation reporting.” Eschewing the advice commonly given to new writers to write what they know, he tells them to go out and have a life in order to learn something new. “To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”
This would seem good advice for planners—to go out and discover other places, other cultures, other people.
The setting is Atlanta, Georgia — a racially mixed, late-century boomtown full of fresh wealth and wily politicians. The protagonist is Charles Croker, once a college football star, now a late-middle-aged Atlanta conglomerate king whose outsize ego has at last hit up against reality. Charlie has a 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation, a young and demanding second wife, and a half-empty office complex with a staggering load of debt.
Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, idealistic young father of two, is laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near Oakland and finds himself spiraling into the lower depths of the American legal system.
And back in Atlanta, when star Georgia Tech running back Fareek “the Canon” Fanon, a homegrown product of the city’s slums, is accused of date-raping the daughter of a pillar of the white establishment, upscale black lawyer Roger White II is asked to represent Fanon and help keep the city’s delicate racial balance from blowing sky-high.
Networks of illegal Asian immigrants crisscrossing the continent, daily life behind bars, shady real estate syndicates — Wolfe shows us contemporary America with all the verve, wit, and insight that have made him our most admired novelist. Charlie Croker’s deliverance from his tribulations provides an unforgettable denouement to the most widely awaited, hilarious and telling novel America has seen in ages — Tom Wolfe’s most outstanding achievement to date.