'A Man in Full' Proves Tom Wolfe's Bonfire is Still Burning

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Why 'A Man in Full' MattersCourtesy Netflix
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As literary conflagrations go, not even Dido’s funeral pyre can compete with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1987 megawatt best-seller, which expanded the playing field for Wolfe, who until then had been best known as a journalist. Like Zola a century before, Wolfe treated the novel as a kind of social document, a reflection of an age.

It would be 11 years before his second novel, A Man in Full, was published. The titular man is developer Charlie Croker, a Croesus of the cotton field whose life is in free fall. At nearly 800 pages, it’s an ambitious novel concerned with bedrocks of American life: history, morality, power, race, sex, and wealth. Think of it as a whiskey-tinged War and Peace, with Atlanta and its social strata getting a forensic dive deeper than Wolfe had even given New York City. For that, we can thank Jonathan Galassi, Wolfe’s editor. “He said, ‘Sometimes I wish I’d set [Bonfire] in Atlanta,’ and I said,‘Why don’t you?’ It became his best selling book.”

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Tom Wolfe, whose novels—including A Man in Full—explore an American obsession with money, power, race, and sex. An adaptation of Man premieres May 2 on Netflix.David Corio - Getty Images



Now, more than a quartercentury after its publication, A Man in Full is stepping out of the shadows cast by Bonfire. In May, it makes the leap to the small screen in a Netflix limited series starring Jeff Daniels, adapted and written by David E. Kelly, and directed in part and executive produced by Regina King. Even today you can’t view Charlie Croker and his troubles impassively. He evokes an almost tangible contempt, his choices elicit shock, his rhetoric makes you cringe, and yet you can’t turn away. He’s Lear with a Southern drawl.

Kelley, who serves as showrunner and executive producer on the project, has distilled this rollicking novel masterfully. “I didn’t see it as anything that could be collapsed and accomplished with efficacy for a two- or three-hour movie,” Kelley says. A Man in Full also had a personal connection for him. “It was one of those books that I would pick up from time to time and read again... It was always a good check-in opportunity on one’s value system.”

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Aml Ameen and William Jackson Harper in A Man in Full, premiering May 2 on Netflix.Mark Hill / Netflix
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After A Man in Full, Wolfe would go on to publish two more novels, I Am Charlotte Simmons, an exploration of sexual mores on a college campus, and Back to Blood, which charts clashes of class and power in Miami. The Bonfire of the Vanities is not the only essential novel Wolfe wrote. Each is a must-read if you want to under-stand American society and its preoccupations and perversions at the time when it was written. But today nothing he wrote hits as hard as A Man in Full.

Bad behavior is still on seemingly endless display, gossip still destroys lives, and power still remains in the hands of the few. When we tune into A Man in Full, it won’t be only to see how eerily prescient Wolfe was, but also to check in with our own values and see where we stand.

This story appears in the May 2024 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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