Upon a river on fire by @wes_tarca #nyc
My late maternal grandmother was an avid reader. When she was a little girl in the 1920s she’d hide with a book so as to avoid having to help with housework. In later years she told her daughter, my mother, that she was reading a terrible book and having a hard time finishing it. My mother thought that was hilarious. If you don’t like a book, stop reading it! With ’A Man in Full’ I found myself in the same situation as my grandmother. This book was no fun to read, and yet I read it through to the end.
To begin, I hated every character except one. The one I didn’t hate, I pitied. Most of the characters were greedy, self-centered creatures who couldn’t see beyond the horizons of their own, petty existences. One of the main characters (I can’t really say for certain that there was a clear protagonist in this mess) was a well-to-do real estate developer and recalcitrant (yet I know what that means, and yes I think it’s an apt description) good ol’ boy named Charlie Croker. At the other extreme, among several characters we’re forced to learned about, is Conrad Hensley. This latter is a decent young man trying to do the right thing and take care of his young family, and through bad luck and even worse judgement ends up in jail. I felt awful for him, and worse for myself for continuing to read it.
Further, this book was too wordy. ½ of the text – at least – could be selectively chopped away without any harm to the plot. It would have flowed much better, at least. Tom Wolfe goes into excessive detail describing each room the characters find themselves in, and generally goes too in-depth on the mental states and thought processes of the people he describes. It was beyond tedious, and after the halfway mark I started skipping a few pages at a time. It made no difference to my ability to follow the storyline.
What put this book on my radar in the first place was that I heard that Stoicism featured heavily in it. That being the case, I decided it must be worth a look. What I actually found was…well, weird. Modern-day Stoicism is an attempt to revive the ancient philosophy of life. Some take it more ‘by-the-book’ and insist that a deity and Providence are necessary to make the philosophy work. Others, like myself, see no need for these concepts to be involved. What Tom Wolfe did with Stoicism was stranger still. One of the key characters (have I mentioned there were many?) ended up in prison through his own desperation and stupidity. For reading material in jail he ended up with a book of Stoic writings, and pretty soon he experienced a jailhouse conversions…to Zeus! This sort of personal relationship with Zeus is something I think must be fairly rare in real-life Stoic circles. At least, I hope so.
After so many words and so much long-delayed build-up, the denouement was completely unsatisfying. A press conference that was bumbled yet somehow got what many wanted, then a few pages of a couple of the characters discussing what happened afterward. Cringe-worthy.
’A Man in Full’ is a bestselling book from a famous author, and I hope to never read its like again.
For books I do recommend, see the ’Reading’ section of this blog.
Windows, brickwork and sculpture in the East Village.
Fifth Avenue, New York City on Easter day, March 23, 1913.