P. J. O'Rourke, Policy Review, April/May 1999.
Among the A-list big dogs of chic fiction, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is not da bomb. Of course, there’s vulgar success against it — cover of Time, phone number first printing. Nothing ills the cool like being hot, except on the rare occasions when it happens to them. But novels by Clancy or Grisham usually pass beneath notice of the critical hepcats. A Man in Full didn’t. Doyen of American letters-a-go-go, John Updike, dissed the text in that edgy journal the New Yorker. “Amounts to entertainment, not literature,” sniffed the man who inked The Witches of Eastwick. Perennially def and slammin’ Norman Mailer gave Wolfe a buzz kill in the fashion-forward New York Review of Books. “Chosen by the author to be a best seller rather than a major novel,” slagged the caption-writer for Marilyn, An Appreciation. And then there was James Wood (so dope, so phat) in the New Republic (it’s fresh, it’s stylin’): “this bumptious simplicity, this toy-set of literary codes essentially indistinguishable from the narrative techniques of boys’ comics.” Jim, that’s cold.
But there is, in fact, every reason for A Man in Full to be unfashionable. Big, sweeping social realism with themes of honor, duty, sin, and belief went out with honor, duty, sin, belief, and the big sweeping societies that had them. Wolfe has written an encomium of the passé, praising hope, reason, self-restraint, custom, shame, good taste, first marriages, and Booker T. Washington.