Described as 'the most anticipated novel of the decade', Tom Wolfe's A Man In Full is set in Atlanta. Humphrey McQueen reviews the fiction and, from the experience of the Atlanta Olympics, questions the place of the arts at Sydney 2000.

Tom Wolfe
A Man in Full
Farrar Straus Giroux
$39.95 rrp

The throng in Swanston Street in October 1990 did not at first comprehend that the Centennial Olympic Games had been awarded to Atlanta. Was not the race down to Athens versus Melbourne? Greek chauvinists grabbed at the hope that they had heard AT-hens in AT-lanta. Then the decision flashed across a mega-screen. Sloping and slinking into the night, thousands mumbled 'Athens has been cheated' or 'Melbourne has lost'. 'Not so', I said to my Austrian companion. 'Pepsi has lost'.

That guess proved to be true, but not because The Coca-Cola Company had sought the Games for its hometown. As a principal sponsor of all Olympic events, Coca-Coca had two objections to Atlanta’s becoming the host city. First, its marketing strategy required the identification of Coke with the Games wherever they are held so that even an unsuccessful bid would alienate customers from rival nations. Indeed, Coca-Cola has since spent millions bearing gifts to the Greeks.

Secondly, Coca-Cola executives feared that if the Olympics came to Atlanta, their corporation would be landed with a sponsorship bill far in excess of any financial return. Those demands eventuated. That Coca-Cola met them to the tune of $US350m., and gladly. The Olympics took charge of Coke's advertainment strategy as much as Coke hijacked the ’96 Games. Sport, both amateur and professional, became the primary vehicle for promoting the lineup from Classic Coke to Motorade.

Within six months of Atlanta's winning the Games, the city became the global eye as CNN covered the 1991 Gulf War from inside Baghdad. Before then, the freest associations with Atlanta were through Hollywood's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone With the Wind. The magnolia and moonshine of the O'Hara plantation at Tara, with its hymn-singing slaves, its burning by Sherman's Army, Scarlett's 'I'll never go hungry again' and Rhett's 'I don't give a damn' became part of collective memory beyond the American South.

Mitchell did not intend Scarlett's closing line of 'After all, tomorrow is another day' to convey hope as much as reiterate her heroine’s lifelong refusal to think about the morality of her actions. In Mitchell's eyes, Scarlett embodied Atlanta as the capital of the New South and was thus infected with Yankee vices. Her literary forebear was Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Despite her frigidity, the thrice-married Scarlett O'Hara-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler was a business woman in full.

Comparisons between GWTW and Wolfe's A Man In Full were pushed in marketing the latter. Mitchell had taken ten years to publish: Wolfe had taken as long to write. GWTW had sold a million copies in its first year: Tom Wolfe's publishers had printed more than a million for the initial hardback run. This PR angling gave no points to Coca-Cola. Behind the campaign was the million dollar advance made to Wolfe after the triumph of his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987.

Having found that work a page-turner, I looked forward to A Man in Full as the perfect fare for my twenty-hour flights from Atlanta to Sydney. How wrong can you be? Far from the vividness of a plot set in New York during the boom years of the 1980s, A Man in Full could hardly be more dreary. Not until pages 140 to 152 did this tome come alive with a comic sequence about the protagonist trapped and humiliated by the security system in his own mansion. I had finished with Wolfe before leaving Los Angeles where I bought Jan Swafford’s Charles Ives, A Life with Music (Norton) which filled the trans-Pacific hours with artistry, social richness and perceptions of personality. My one regret was that Percy Grainger has not found as enticing a biographer.

Wolfe's novel is so flat, so ordinary, that it does not deserve literary analysis. Wolfe’s stumbling would not be an issue for a less hyped flop, but one role of the critic is to come between the marketing juggernaut and the audience. Hence, its failings will have to be spelt out in order to explain why Wolfe has not come within a crooked mile of his stated ambition to emulate Dickens, Zola and Balzac.

Dickens is my hero too. I read one each winter and am already looking forward to Dombey and Son. Fondness for a good read, for a plot with characters and a moral has left me wincing as Wolfe fails at every Dickensian test. The master delineated minor characters by giving each a distinguishing feature. Wolfe, instead, gives not one but several of his walk-on figures necks that fan out wider than their ears, or a smoker's baritone. The precision is lost.

Wolfe’s inadequacies appear in the ineptness of his choice of words and the cumbersomeness of his structure. He may be right to claim that he relies on coincidences no more than did Balzac. The difference is that the dodges of the master criminal Vautrin are swept along by the energy of his creator’s imagination. So much is always happening in the human comedy that we accept the most unlikely incidents. With A Man In Fall, we encounter the novelisation of an inter-racial rape for a film script awaiting its contract. The storyline jump-starts. like any formulaic draft. When the mayor says, 'I'm just trying to construct a narrative, you might say, and I'm just  hoping it'll unfold naturally', it could be Wolfe speaking of his novel.

The opening chapter is set at a quail shoot on the plantation of the man in full, a property developer named Charlie Cousins. It ends with a phone call from his bankers summoning him to deal with his bankruptcy. 'The avalanche had begun'. That geological metaphor is worse than a cliché because it fails to connect with the previous pages where Charlie had been talking about covey of quail ‘exploding’. A concluding sentence about becoming the target would have been consistent if hardly more inspired.

Similarly, the thirteen pages of a stallion being mated adds no layer to the story, but remains another journalist's detour. Wolfe might have once intended to relate the stallion to the alleged black rapist or to Charlie's own sexual energy. Instead, any such resonances are overwhelmed by Charlie’s careless anti-Semitism. A third example of not tying the particular to the general is Wolfe’s failure to link Charlie's being trapped at a sassiety banquet in honour of a dead, homoerotic, black artist with his being trapped by the security system, both of which come at his wife's insistence. In this thicket of missed opportunities, the touches that do work appear as carelessness.

Wolfe’s descriptions of the environment are not a patch on Margaret Mitchell's; hers hold our attention for a page or more, his sag at the first sentence. He has none of the talent of William Gaddis for energising direct speech. though he is smart at transliterating speech patterns. Wolfe loses track of the voices. For instance, he has the black mayor tell a black lawyer: 'The last real race riot in Atlanta - started by white people, by the way - was in 1906'. That 'by the way' is not addressed to the lawyer, who knows that historical detail already, but at the reader.

As a reporter, Wolfe could hardly fail to pick up a few of the turns of phrase that American-English generates every day. In six weeks, I acquired 'Tuppies' for Tired Urban Professionals; 'Biz-ball' for business-dominated ballgames; and 'mall-ticulturalism' for the commercial exploitation of ethnic differences around food and fashion. From ten years of eavesdropping, the most that Wolfe managed is to have Charlie’s creditors warn: 'From now on we're gonna be like the Vietcong. We're gonna travel on the ground and live off the land'; a first wife is for better or worse but a second and younger one is only for better, and aerobics keep her ‘a boy with breasts’.

Wolfe splatters his pages with sound effects from the ghetto such as 'Bot THOMP' instead of creating an urban whirl as Dos Passos did in USA (1930-6). Wolfe’s attempts at cacophony have the inventiveness of the WHAM-BAMS in a 1950s comic book.

Wolfe’s competition are not other novelists, whether Mailer or Updike, but the authors of faction. They enliven their blockbuster corporate histories with invented direct speech while Wolfe crams the mouths of his characters with slabs of social history. In recreating the upheavals at Sears, Donald Katz’s The big store (Penguin, 1988) is closer to a contemporary Dickens than Wolfe ever comes. Katz’s real life characters are as impossible as Mr Tulkinghorn or the Golden Dustman.

A Man in Full is as lumpy as any piece of Soviet Realism. The young hero, Conrad, is Soviet Man, an intelligent and diligent labourer who never questions the system but collides with corrupt bureaucrats. He has impure thoughts but is never unfaithful to his harpy of a wife. He is gentle with the weak and generous to those even needier than himself. He is admirable and would be convincing were it not for the affliction that overtakes his power of speech while in gaol for defending his automobile. In a case that would fascinate Oliver Sacks, Conrad loses the power to converse. Ask him the time of day and he will tell you what Epictetus thought about time and its passing. He recites slabs from the Stoics instead of from Stalin.

As with Wolfe’s fondness for Dickens, my reaction against the treatment of the Stoics is the sharper because I agree with the Stoics on the connection between moral or physical courage. Moral courage gives Conrad the ability to apply the strength of his hands.

Wolfe championed Dickens in a call for US authors to get outside their egos. But that is where Wolfe is stuck, with his little prejudices. Wolfe, the author, and the black lawyer Roger Too White are both more offended by the mayor's Pizza-patterned neckties than by His Honour’s ties to the crooks.

Because the characters are Wolfe’s puppets, the gap between his views and their opinions is not sharp. Wolfe identifies with Ralph Too White in his disdain for the excesses of his fellow black bourgeois, just as his creator did for the crassness of the Manhattan in The Painted Word and Radical Chic. Whose racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia keeps breaking through?

E. M. Forster illuminated the relationship between writer and reader when he proposed that the author must trust his audience to remember what they have read and the audience must trust the novelist to tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. Wolfe does not trust us to remember. Charlie tells us that his crook knee is from football, and not from his sixty years, as if he ‘had to underline the fact', which Wolfe does at every mention. The repeated references to Joel Garreau’s Edge City, an analysis of Atlanta’s pattern of urban sprawl, exemplifies Wolfe’s rubbing his readers’ noses into his background research. In addition, Wolfe’s own memory slips: 'I won't have to stand there murmuring Mr Mayor', muses Roger Too White. Six pages on he does just that, without a trace of irony.

Wolfe's intimacy with New York, which set Bonfire of the Vanities alight, could not be expected from an intermittent visitor to Atlanta. However, the stiltedness in A Man In Full derives from a social, not a geographical distancing. The only time any of his characters venture into the ghetto they travel in the mayor's limo. Wolfe mentions the public transit system but his story accompanies none of his characters on a MARTA train. (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, also known as Moving African-Americans Rapidly Through Atlanta, though not to Mr Wolfe.) No life is permitted there, not so much as a Coke vending machine, on the assumption that any activity encourages crime. Had Wolfe ventured onto a platform, the reporter in him could not have failed to register how like a maximum-security prison those concrete caverns are, setting off a comparison with Conrad's incarceration.

For thirty years Atlanta’s urban planners have cried out 'bring people back to downtown’, as if the blacks were not people, which they are not, because the Constitution has been reinterpreted to mean that only those consumers who can afford life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are 'We, the people'.

In the fifties, the nigras rode at the back of the bus. Today, African-Americans have MARTA to themselves, except for the stray Australian researcher. Before construction of MARTA commenced in 1971, Cobb and Gwinnett counties (Newt Gingrich's erstwhile bailiwick) rejected its entry into their domains, a decision they repeated in November 1998, because the rail would bring in criminals, code for blacks. This social reaction is matched by a fiscal conservatism which also leads them to vote against taxes to expand the freeways. Hence, whitey is traffic-jammed in his Cherrokee, which is as far as redistributive justice travels in the United Mistakes.

The race line is as wide in the arts as it is for transport. 'It's got absolutely nothing to do with me, all this stuff’ declares the fictional mayor about the art opening that Charlie cannot escape. At four symphony concerts, I saw a score of black faces in the audiences of around 8,000 and not one in the 100-piece orchestra, though several Asians; the 250-voice choir for Dvorak's Stabat Mater had fourteen not entirely white singers. The near absence of the black bourgeoisie had struck me in New York at the opera, and around art museums of Chicago and Boston. 'Atlanta has no character, we are building it now', asserted black mayor Andrew Young in explaining why he did not endorse preservation of the built environment such as the Leouw Theatre or other GWTW evocations of contented darkies and a chivalrous Klan.

A cultural cringe flowers like dogwood in Atlanta, with the rich nervous about how Wolfe would depict them. Last century, when its boosters were not announcing Atlanta as the New York of the South, it was the Chicago. The Confederacy agreed that if Atlanta could suck as well as it could blow it would be a port. To gild their money-grubbing, Atlantans began paying for the Metropolitan Opera to make annual visits, which continued into the Sixties with Joan Sutherland. The result was derision from both the North-east and from its Southern neighbours. In the late twenties, the allegation went around that the Met, with Rosa Ponselle, had forgotten the scores for Aida and so gave The Queen of Sheba, but no Atlantan noticed. This edginess persists. Elton John's reworking of Aida into a musical tried out in Atlanta to full houses and critical disappointment. Meanwhile, Atlantans were embarrassed by the New York opening of another musical based around the 1915 lynching of a Jew in their home town.

The entrepreneurs behind the Atlanta Olympics Committee were terrified that their efforts would be characterised as the Bubba Games, (Bubba being an especially slow Southerner). Attempts by the Smithsonian Institution to showcase regional arts, crafts and cuisines were defeated by a combination of this inferiority complex and commercial imperatives. The lessons for Australia are obvious from the account of the arts at Atlanta by Smithsonian director, Richard Kurin (listed below).

The commercial obstacles arose from economies of scale. By definition, profit margins on the local will be small. The volumes will be tiny compared with the imported ephemera made by child labour in mainland China. Even established labels such as Ken Done or Mambo will be hard pressed to compete. One advantage that Australian producers have over their Southern American counterparts is that governmental agencies here are more influential. The Australia Council and the craft bodies can act as a marketing agency for creators from Perth and Hobart, or from even further afield such as Penrith or Hornsby.

More difficult will be the sale of local foods and drinks. Here, the reluctance of the organisers to be bothered with hundreds of stallholders is compounded by the exclusive sponsorships for which giants such as Coca-Cola have paid millions, leaving no stomach share for a North Coast ginger beer. The diversity of our eating habits will be lost under the mass marketing by the food conglomerates. Yet community organisations have the experience to mount food fairs. All they need – and it is an enormous ask – is that the government set aside spaces for them to operate from tents around the major transit points, if not at the Games sites.

Australians are no longer as anxious as Atlantans remain about how the rest of the world views us. Our strut and cringing have been overtaken by a relaxed upright stance. However, segments of the intelligentsia are yet to catch up. They continue to avoid the achievements of their own settler heritages by finding worth only in things Aboriginal. So one trend to counter in 2000 is that the only Australian art is indigenous art, and that only indigenous art is world class.

Exhibitions of settler paintings must ban all nineteenth-century canvases and bushscapes from any period. Instead, the only images should be those that revel in the expanse of urban living here during the 104 years since the first modern Olympiad, the period of federated Australia. Any Aboriginal art shown should also be urban. The aim should be to present Australia as we live it, with all its contraries, not as a primitivism for German tourists.

Modernity means the electronic media. The Olympics Arts festival should highlight radio, cinema and television. One of the cable channels could be commissioned to run a round-the-clock survey of Australian films. Indeed, the national networks and the commercials should also participate so that when visitors turn on the radio or the television they can hear or see Australian creations, not just re-runs of the BBC or Hollywood, and more than replays of that day’s sporting events. Ethnic and community stations have a special role here in introducing visitors to the creativity that emigration inspires. 

In the preforming arts, the priority should be on the commissioning of new pieces. Those productions should include examples of how Australians do the works of the societies from which we have come. That interplay was in Stephen Sewell’s Traitors (1979) set in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. We should look forward to the equivalents of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, which evoked the origins of classical ballet in Australia through the touring companies of the 1930s, or his  After Venice, with its engagement of Olivier Messiaen and Thomas Mann in the HIV-AIDS epidemic that cemeted Sydney’s place as one of the gay centres of the world. The Games will also be a chance to revive some works from the last thirty years, though it is unwise to drag even the most stunning productions back on stage.

The point is not to prove that the colonials can do Schubert and Shakespeare as well as the Europeans, but to reveal how we do them differently. Gale Edwards’ production of The Merchant of Venice and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s programming of both Mozart and Meale are guides. (That Sydney theatre is as often as not better than Shaftesbury Avenue is no part of my argument.)

If other nations offer their best for a festival, then Sydney should accept them, but we should not spend our millions on imports. Ninety-nine out of every hundred opera-lovers live in the Northern hemisphere and can fly to Berlin for a Staatsoper production of Tannhauser. In the Sydney Opera House, they will want to see the Elke Neidhardt account, though with an imported lead.

Atlanta’s cultural life in 1998 showed no sign that the Olympics had been there two years previously. So little impact did those Games have on the city that Tom Wolfe did not notice that they had come and gone. Australians need to ensure that we are left with more than a hole in our pocket.

David Greising, I'd Like the World to Buy a Coke, Wiley, New York, 1997, chapter 10.
Richard Kurin, 'The American South at the Olympics', Reflections of a culture broker, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1997.
Darden Asbury Pyron, Southern Daughter, The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.
Charles Rutheiser, Imagineering Atlanta, the politics of place in the city of dreams, Verso, London, 1996.