A Man Half Full

Review of A Man in Full. Norman Mailer, The New York Review of Books, December 17, 1998.

…Three cheers. One has to applaud his moxie. Only an innocent or a simpleton could fail to recognize that a live hornet was being deposited in the crevice of every literary seat in town. If The Bonfire of the Vanities had excited envy and outrage, Wolfe was now upping the ante. It was the equivalent of a large raise in the World Series of Poker. Could he bring off the huge novel he was obviously suggesting, or was he riding on an outsize bluff?

Well, the years went by and Wolfe went through a quintuple heart by-pass and the towering depression that ensued. His writing life had to pass through some of the highs and lows of the exalted and the damned. It is not routine to bring off a long novel when your ambition is more than major, when you will settle for nothing less than an attempt to write a great novel, and when you are into your sixties and not all that well.

Given the stakes he set, the tension in reading A Man in Full never quite ceases. Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller?

Wolfe’s salient characteristic as a first novelist, the element that raised The Bonfire of the Vanities above all considerations of its merits and vices, was that it sold 750,000 copies in hardcover. The book was thereby emblazoned as the literary phenomenon of the Eighties. His finest literary impulses of that era and his pecuniary needs had come together. Naturally, it became somewhat more difficult to conceive of a major novel that would not also be a commercial blockbuster. The flavor of A Man in Full suggests a creator who is being obliged to live with a double motive…

The New York Review of Books