The megayield critical and commercial success of The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987 made Tom Wolfe a rich and very gratified author indeed. That big, boisterous novel, his first, proved a point that he had been arguing, much to the annoyance of literary folks, for years: American fiction could still portray the hectic complexities of contemporary social life, could still capture the textures and rhythms of a seething modern city, if novelists would just leave their desks, maybe take a sabbatical from their professorships in creative writing and go out and report on the fabulous stuff taking place all around them. But, Wolfe complained, most post-'60s U.S. novelists had simply abandoned the passing scene in favor of introspection or self-conscious artifice. They had ceded public reality to journalists, of whom Wolfe was a notable example (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff) before he invaded the House of Fiction and noisily threw open the windows.
After Bonfire, though, came the inevitable question. What next? Topping his first novel would be hard, the risk of failure and I-told-you-so reviews high. But Wolfe found the challenge irresistible. "I was 57," he says, "and I thought the eight or nine years I'd spent on Bonfire had taught me what not to do the second time. So, I proceeded to make every blunder a beginning writer could stumble into."
As he lists them, it becomes clear why readers have had to wait 11 years for A Man in Full (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 742 pages; $28.95) and how demanding the self-imposed Wolfe regimen of putting that book together actually was. "First, I tried to take the easy way out by setting most of the new novel in Manhattan, the same locale I'd used in Bonfire. I didn't realize until 1995 that this approach wasn't working and that I was repeating myself. Second, I always recommend to people who ask me for helpful hints on writing that they start with an outline. Naturally, I didn't take my own advice and do an outline until I was years into this project.
"A third mistake," he adds, "was my feeling that the new book had to raise the stakes and include more than Bonfire, that I was obligated to write the biggest book in the world. So I spent 10 very expensive days in Japan looking for some way to get that country into the plot. And I also tried to work in some sort of television-news element and the life of an unsuccessful artist and the dealings of an unctuous insurance salesman, all of which required a lot of research and reporting and proved to be dead ends. I practically have bales of discarded manuscripts."
All these delays caused another problem, one stemming directly from Wolfe's determination to make his novels factually accurate. "I always intended to set this book in the present," he says, "but I took so long writing it that the present kept changing."