Why the literary gadfly's first novel in 11 years is poised to conquer the Christmas season
It TOOK A DECADE to write. It is the panoramic saga of a hot-house Atlanta society on the verge of being burned to the ground. Its headstrong protagonist is an enduring symbol of American enterprise. It received rave reviews but was such a popular sensation that it demolished the barrier that traditionally separates literary from commercial fiction. The book is of course Gone with the Wind, but if you were to mistake the above description for that of Tom Wolfe's new novel from FSG, A Man in Full, you wouldn't be far off the mark.
Lest you think that this eminent social satirist, known for his savage critiques of American pomp and pretension and for his ferocious, era-capping pronouncements, is ill-served by a comparison to the author of the most beloved potboiler of all time, rest assured; it's a comparison that he encourages. "I love being in the same paragraph as Margaret Mitchell," he says over breakfast at the Ritz in Atlanta. "In literary circles, you're not supposed to say that. But you could argue, and I would if anyone would listen, that Gone with the Wind is the greatest American novel ever written." Just two days after the National Book Foundation denied him a second NBA, it's not surprising to find this genteel contrarian slyly thumbing his nose at literary elitism. But rarely has Wolfe made his ambitions to write for the widest possible audience so unabashedly clear.
Thus far, readers have been happy to oblige him. No novel this year has been saddled with the high expectations that awaited Wolfe's first book since Bonfire of the Vanities, and no novel this year has made such a splash in the publishing pool. The ravenous news media that, in The Right Stuff, Wolfe famously decried as a "consummate hypocritical Victorian Gent," have seized the author by his high-peaked lapels and refuse to let go.
He has landed on the cover of Time magazine (one of a handful of authors this decade to do so), been profiled by newspapers from coast to coast and has been featured in seven separate articles in the New York Times alone, all of which has helped him set sales records at bookstore appearances during the most competitive bookselling season of the year.
When we last heard from Wolfe, the publishing industry was a different place. When Bonfire appeared in 1987, well before the advent of the one-day laydown, it came with a first printing of 200,000 copies, an ambitious sales projection in its day, and one that depended on the handselling efforts of a vibrant independent bookseller network. A Man in Full steps into a different world, sporting a first printing of 1.2 million, with its eye trained on a wide range of retail accounts, from independents to K-Mart to Amazon to the massive chain-owned superstores. The one-day laydown, meant to maximize a book's chances of immediately capturing the top slot of the bestseller list-a feat usually only achieved by the likes of a Grisham, Clancy or King-proved successful, and at press time, that's where the book remains. "It's surprising," says Irwyn Applebaum, who will publish the book in trade paperback at Bantam sometime next year, "that Tom Wolfe, who many consider a literary author, would be able, two out of two times, to attract such keen interest."
But is Wolfe a literary author? In the modern entertainment market, serious fiction has always been overshadowed by commercial fiction, film and TV. As Time Magazine book critic Paul Grey puts it, "The notion that literature occupies a higher cultural niche has gone by the boards." But can Wolfe's novel, an ambitious, multilayered feat of storytelling that hit the marketplace like a commercial heavyweight, safely be defined as either literary or commercial? Would this doorstopper of a novel, published by a mid-size house known more for Nobel laureates than bestsellers, command the interest of so large a readership if it weren't also such a pop phenomenon?
These questions were foremost in our mind as we set out last month to follow Wolfe from reading to reading during the breakneck swing through Atlanta that promised to be the most highly charged stretch of his book tour. Ever since the headline of a Wall Street Journal article screamed "Fiddle-dee-dee! Wolfe Burns Atlanta," the capital city of the New South was spoiling for a showdown with the cosmopolitan author who seemed poised to bring more attention to Atlanta than any event since the centenary summer Olympics.
The specter of Atlanta in flames certainly haunts the novel, whose myriad plotlines depict the decline and fall of local real estate titan Charlie Croker, proprietor of a quail plantation called Turpmtine; the political brushfire touched off by the accusation that a black Georgia Tech football star has raped the daughter of a white business tycoon; a mayoral race tinged by the vexed politics of a city unable to put to rest the racial conflagrations of the past; and the bizarre odyssey of a worker laid off from one of Croker's frozen food warehouses who finds himself on a collision course with his CEO. When asked if he intended to write an inflammatory tract, Wolfe almost admits as much by voicing an opposite fear: "I was worried that people were expecting a firebomb or a blowtorch and that it was a warm bath." In his words, "The book is neither pro-Atlanta nor anti-Atlanta. It is Atlanta." But the controversial thrust of the book has paid off amply, helping to generate the storm of publicity that greeted him immediately upon his arrival here.
Marching Through Georgia
From the moment he touched down at Hartsfield International Airport, Wolfe was surrounded by a battalion of TV cameras and reporters from news organizations across the country. The most ubiquitous were those representing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gossip column "Peach Buzz," which ran a week-long segment called The Wolfe Watch, illustrated at the top with a Mr. Peanut-like caricature of the author, to track his travels about town and contretemps with reviewers and local politicians. Eyebrows rose when former mayor Sam Massel rescinded an offer to have Wolfe speak at a meeting of leading businessmen, and when the current mayor, Bill Campbell, who is black, boycotted all of Wolfe's appearances. Which of the self-made Atlanta real estate moguls is Croker supposed to be? (Wolfe calls him a composite.) Is the fictional mayor's effort to "pass" as a darker skinned man based on a very real controversy surrounding Atlanta's last mayoral campaign?
According to FSG marketing v-p Laurie Brown, the fast-breaking, true-to-life elements of the book fundamentally shaped the marketing campaign, from the decision to publish after the November elections, a strategy that paid huge dividends when the novel hit a news vacuum in its first week of publication ("You can always lose a Time cover to an Israeli peace agreement," says Brown in jest), to the house's decision not to release advance galleys. Indeed, the news angle is what influenced Time to put Wolfe on the cover a week before pub date, despite the fact that authors don't generally sell well on newsstands. Sales of the Tom Wolfe issue "weren't great," according to Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, but featuring Wolfe on the cover was important to Isaacson because "it helps push a form of fiction that is engaged in the world."
Talk about engaged! In Atlanta, Wolfe had so many commitments that he barely paused to eat or sleep. Although the novel painstakingly chronicles Atlanta's diverse and polarized social strata, Wolfe zer d in on consumers more likely to afford his $28.95 hardcover. For three days, he crisscrossed the city's wealthier enclaves, from a black-tie benefit for the Margaret Mitchell House at the Atlanta History Center to private lectures and readings at the Four Seasons and at the Piedmont Riding Club in Buckhead, the city's most affluent district. At the Borders store there, a carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed, as roughly 1100 customers, waiting in line for hours, found diversion from an "electric kool-aid" stand (minus the LSD), a large screen TV running a videotape of The Right Stuff and a bookseller in an astronaut suit. At the Hartsfield Airport Waterstones, Wolfe signed 200 copies of the novel in just over 30 minutes.
Some may find it surprising that Atlantans opened their arms to welcome an author who has aired so much of their city's dirty laundry. More surprising perhaps is how Wolfe, who has made a hobby of skewering sacred cows and bloated egos, continues to find subjects who will let their guard down in front of him. But finessing his way into strange and often exclusive milieux has long been his trademark. Asked how he d s it, Wolfe explains, "Usually, I just start with one person. In effect what I try to do when I go somewhere is say, `I'm going to be your chronicler. If you're interested, tell me a story.' And this is my one contribution to psychology, what I call Informational Compulsion. Most people have a story to tell and they're delighted when somebody arrives and wants to listen to it." As he says this, one sees how quickly Wolfe could disarm almost any adversary with his easygoing, soft-spoken demeanor and impeccable Southern manners. "There's a lot more everyday casual courtesy in the South than in other places," he observes. "There is such a thing as Southern hypocrisy. But it's always couched in courteous terms and that makes life a lot smoother."
Wolfe says that he made dozens of visits to Atlanta to research the novel, and traveled to quail plantations in the company of his friends Mack and Mary Rose Taylor, who are among the book's dedicatees (Mack is a leading Atlanta real estate developer and, coincidentally, the father of publishing PR guru Camille McDuffy). At the Atlanta History Center, when one wag in the audience stood up and asked whether, on one of these trips, Wolfe shot a bird, he puckishly replied, "I'm not sure which kind you mean. They were too smart to let me shoot a gun." What Wolfe shot instead was a lurid snapshot of conspicuous consumption, South Georgia-style. Turpmtine is eerily suggestive of the ante-bellum South- "29,000 acres of fields, woods, and swamp, plus the Big House, the Jook House, the overseer's house" and a landing strip for Croker's Gulfstream Five, all maintained by an extensive African-American staff dressed in yellow overalls.
As difficult as it may be to envision Wolfe in his cream suits, spats and speckled socks, prowling for quail in the moist Georgia sedge, it's clear that his wardrobe is, in effect, a form of camouflage deflecting attention from the inner man to his exterior. "Early in the game," Wolfe says, "when I was writing articles about all sorts of new social phenomena, I realized I was not going to blend in no matter what I wore. When I was covering Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, they were always astounded that I would show up in a jacket and necktie." The product of a small Richmond boy's school where a strict dress code was enforced, Wolfe was still a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune in the 1960s when he upped the sartorial ante considerably, adapting the style of an insouciant planter that he maintains to this day. His wardrobe has also helped make him a pop icon, instantly recognizable from across the room or on the page of a magazine. "Tom is a star in a way that writers usually are not," says his editor, Jonathan Galassi. As FSG's Brown puts it, Wolfe "lives a life outside of the spotlight, but when he's ready to step back into the spotlight, it's ready for him."
A Decade Defined
In this millennial year, the desire for books that define our times has grown intense, and Wolfe d sn't shrink from the task. Making an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, which was televised on C-Span, Wolfe declared that the "money fever" of the 1980s has been replaced by the "moral fever" of the 1990s. Such proclamations have become as much a hallmark of Wolfe's as his clothing. On stage or on TV, Wolfe can be a magnetic showman, a deadpan raconteur with stark features and dark, expressive eyes.
Lynn Nesbit, who has represented Wolfe since his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, was issued by FSG in 1965, insists that the author's star power has little to do with his present success. "Maybe he has a persona but I don't think that should be emphasized." It's the quality of this book and that alone that has made it so popular, she says. That may be, but FSG has certainly capitalized on Wolfe's celebrity status by setting his name on the dust jacket in type that's roughly 10 times larger than the title of the book.
The cult of personality surrounding Wolfe's work also helped keep the hype engine revved during his long years of silence. Until recently, few people knew what his new novel would be about. Though never catalogued before this year, FSG hoped it would be ready earlier. It was to be called The Mayflies, then Red Dog, then Cracker Heaven. But as word spread that Wolfe had undergone quintuple bypass surgery and was suffering from depression, its imminent release seemed unlikely. As it turned out, the delay had more to do with Wolfe's uncertain plans for the book than anything else. "We all know that Tom is his most severe critic as well as his most exacting editor," says Nesbit. "It's not that he wasn't writing. He was cutting, revising, taking certain things out." In retrospect, Wolfe says he "wasted colossal amounts of time trying to put this book in New York." Six years into it, he sent Galassi an 830-page manuscript and met him for lunch shortly thereafter. "I found myself telling stories about Atlanta," Wolfe recalls. "And I said, `I should have written about Atlanta.' Without skipping a beat, Jonathan said, `That would be a good idea.' That was his very subtle way of saying this book wasn't panning out."
It was a gamble for FSG to indefinitely absorb the cost of a long-unfinished book contract with an advance reported to be roughly $6 million. But their forbearance was crucial, says Wolfe. "I was so glad, when this played out the way that it did, that I was with Farrar, Straus. They never put any kind of pressure on me. I don't think that a lot of the publishers that were interested in me after Bonfire of the Vanities would have had the faith or the patience to wait for this thing."
Wolfe finished the novel in August (he works on a manual typewriter and the complete, triple-space manuscript came in at 2100 pages). In order to meet the November release date, says Galassi, FSG had to "turn on a dime." One of the unorthodox production measures they devised was to divide the book into two sets of proofs. The two halves of the manuscript were read in shifts (which "drove the copyeditors crazy!" says Galassi). Even Time's Paul Grey says that he received the manuscript in two installments, one in July and one in August. Notorious for making enormous changes at the last minute, Wolfe was tightening the book until the very end.
The publicity campaign was to prove just as unorthodox. Though sources at FSG insist that no title on the fall list was sacrificed to the Man in Full juggernaut, FSG's Brown says, "There's no question this book was discussed every day for months, and fretted over, as we tried to get the right number of books shipped."
From the start, the marketing campaign was designed to strike at an elusive segment of the market: male readers of literary fiction. The sheer heft of the book, combined with an ultra-sleek book design, in which a hulking businessman gazes Rasputin-like through a dust jacket window, telegraphs that the author of The Right Stuff remains resolutely interested in the question of what defines the late 20th-century male.
The book has been carefully positioned in places where business travelers, and men in particular, are likely to see it. The marketing budget, said to be $500,000 (an unprecedented sum for FSG), will be used during the frantic book-buying weeks ahead for full-color ads in newspapers, on the sides of buses in midtown Manhattan and in lightboxes at airports in Atlanta, New York, Washington and Boston.
It's hard to say how much the stellar sales of A Man in Full should be attributed not to the engaging narrative that Wolfe has written, but to the fact that it was published and marketed so well. Nor is it easy to predict how the circumstances surrounding this publishing event will align themselves around future novels that ambitiously take as their subject the whole breadth of contemporary American life. But it's worth remembering that what eventually und s Wolfe's protagonist, Charlie Croker, is the hubris that leads him to think that he controls the real estate market rather than the other way around. "A real-estate developer is a one-man band and the band is called Me, Myself and I," says Wolfe. "They have the gambling instinct and always want to roll the dice." In the case of A Man in Full, an ad-hoc coalition of publishers, booksellers and arbiters of popular taste rolled the dice simultaneously. And they've rolled a winner.