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A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe (3rd reading)

A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe (3rd reading)

Gerry Farrell, the creative director of The Leith Agency would sometimes describe an advertising idea as having “got the Zeitgeist by the bollocks.”

Well this book put the Zeitgeist’s wedding tackle in a vice back in 1998 and, rather than loosening its grip in the intervening years, it’s slowly been turning the screw ever since.

How many contemporary themes can one book realistically hope to explore?

You want a banking crisis? You got a banking crisis.

Prudent? It had been a struggle even to be prudent. In the 1980s Prudent hadn’t stood a chance; nor in the late 1990s. The boom was on, and the banking business had caught fire, and a wonderful giddy madness was in the air. The line officers from Marketing were pushing through loans, their “big sales,” with a pell-mell abandon. If you were a referee who insisted on detecting the madness and blowing your whistle, they just ran right over you, laughed at you, made you feel timid and old-fashioned. Like every other senior credit officer, Peepgas had signed off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans with self-destruct written all over them…including Charlie Croker’s, rather than try to stand in the way of the stampede…

But you also get…

  • Racial tension.
  • Misogynist rap lyrics.
  • The different rules that modern sportspeople and celebrities believe apply to them.
  • The shallowness of “friendships” based on status, money and utility.
  • The impact on all stakeholders of a dick-led divorce and second marriage to a younger spouse.
  • The machinations of local politics.
  • The potentially catastrophic consequences of marital infidelity.
  • The pressure of being the main family breadwinner in times of economic downturn and uncertainty.

A Man In Full tag cloud would probably sell the book to you on its own. (You should never judge a book by its cover, but a tag cloud is probably ok.)

There are a few recurring themes in this book.

Firstly that our lives – all lives great and small – are hanging by threads. And that it only takes one poor decision, or the wrong response to an incident of bad luck, for the whole thing to unravel and fall apart.

Secondly that pride almost certainly does come before a fall.

Thirdly that redemption moves in mysterious ways.

This morality tale is beautifully told through the eyes of a series of trademark Tom Wolfe larger than life characters, whose personal stories gradually converge across 750 odd compelling pages.

But the reason that I’ve read this book three times now, and Bonfire Of The Vanities only once, is that these larger than life characters have more depth and are more sympathetic. Indeed this seems to have been a common theme amongst professional book reviewers, and I heartily concur.

I believe that Will Self once described “what is your favourite book?” as the most stupid question anyone could ask, although I couldn’t find evidence of this on Google. If he did say it I kind of know what he means. Favourite book singular, as opposed to favourite books plural, is a notion that I’d instinctively resist. Nonetheless, A Man In Full is the title that pops into my head if I ever entertain the thought. That must mean something.

I realise that I’ve said a lot without actually giving any detail on the characters or any precis of the storyline.

And I’m not going to.

There are plenty of places where you can read a plot summary if that’s your bag.

Just trust me. This book is an epic treat. In turn funny, poignant, and insightful.

The only slight criticism I’d level is that the ending lacks some of the sparkle of the rest of the book.

But don’t let that put you off. If I’d just watched Liverpool tear Manchester Utd apart for 85 minutes, scoring five or six spectacular goals in the process, I wouldn’t begrudge them two or three minutes of passing the ball back and forwards without attacking intent before the final whistle.

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