LITERATURE - TOM WOLFE'S ATLANTA - REVIEW
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.