I think Norman Mailer was wrong. In his 1998 review of Tom Wolfe’s, A Man in Full, he writes, “the tension in reading [it] never quite ceases. Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller? […] it begins to promise that [Wolfe] is ready to become a great American novelist, and then it loses its air and settles (with all the canniness of a hard-nosed business judgment) for being a Mega-bestseller.”
I came to the opposite conclusion — that this actually is a great novel, masquerading as a fun page-turner, after a wonderful third act where the novel’s two major storylines intertwine. Here’s the background to my favourite passage, from the publishers:
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.
At this point in the novel, Conrad has escaped from prison, and after a series of turns has ended up working as a caregiver for a post-operative Charlie Crocker. Crocker is wounded and alone, and facing a major dilemma: whether to betray his best friend to save his real estate empire:
“Whaddaya reading?” His voice was so tired.
“It’s a book called The Stoics, Mr. Crocker.”
“I see… What’s it about?” […]
“Well,” said the boy, “most philosophers assume that you’re free, you’ve got all these possibilities, and it’s like you can design your own life any way you want.”
The boy hesitated; so Charlie gave him a little encouragement. “Go ahead.”
“The Stoics, they assumed the opposite. They said that in fact you have very few choices. You’re probably trapped in some situation, everything from being under somebody’s thumb to being a slave to disease to actually being in jail. They assumed that in all likelihood you weren’t free.” […]
What stuck in Charlie’s mind was probably trapped in some situation.
“So tell me, do you consider yourself a Stoic?”
“I’m just reading about it,” said Conrad, “but I wish there was somebody around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus. Today people think of Stoics — like, you know, they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering. But that’s not it at all. What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them. If you say to a Stoic, ‘Look, you do what I tell you or I’ll kill you,’ he’ll look you in the eye and say, “You do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do — and, by the way, when did I ever tell you I was immortal?”
“And you’d like to be like that?” asked Charlie.
“I — yes.”
Charlie could tell that the boy felt he had already said too much.
“All right,” said Charlie, “let’s suppose somebody is in a dilemma. If he chooses one thing, then he gains something valuable, but he loses something that may be even more valuable. And vice versa. If he chooses the other thing, then it’s the same problem. He gains one thing of value and loses another thing that may be even more valuable. […] So what does your Stoic say about dilemmas?”
There was embarrassment on the boy’s face. He hesitated… then said: “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”
* * *
I love this passage because it’s the moment you release this is not just a fun, gossipy novel about power, sex and real estate among the rich of Atlanta (though it’s also that). It’s also a philosophical study into a one of life’s big questions: whether we can be free within external conditions of un-freedom, even the ones we’ve created for ourselves.
A great read by a great American writer.