Despite Wolfe’s New Novel, Atlanta Isn’t Burning Again


On paper it looked like a volatile combination: A city famous for its flammability, and a literary bad boy who loves a good bonfire.

Warned for years that its every flaw would be exposed in one of the most anticipated novels of the decade--”A Man in Full,” by Tom Wolfe--this forever smoldering metropolis was supposed to explode this month when 1.3 million copies of the book finally hit the streets. One eminent reviewer predicted that Wolfe would be seen here as a modern day Sherman, only less merciful. Experts on Atlanta’s long-standing aversion to criticism were hinting at a total psychological meltdown. As the rest of the nation looked forward to a crackling good read, Atlanta sank into a mood of abject dread.

But two weeks after the book’s release, it seems Atlanta is the city too busy to hate Tom Wolfe.


When Wolfe arrives Wednesday for two days of public appearances, he may be secretly disappointed to find that the city he’s torched isn’t fuming. And such studied indifference more typical of New York or Los Angeles may be what local historians recall years from now about Wolfe’s book: Not that it set Atlanta alight once again, but that it proved the city to be flame-retardant at last.

Publicly, at least, Wolfe insists he never meant to burn Atlanta.

“In my mind, this book was neither anti-Atlanta, nor pro-Atlanta,” he said during a recent interview. “It was Atlanta, as best as I could bring it alive.”

Still, his slant is devastating. In this proud capital of the New South, Wolfe depicts nouveau riche rednecks grasping for status, a skyline jagged with monuments to the egos of dueling developers and a populace configured like a “baseball,” with a hard black core surrounded by layers of white. In the city’s exclusive neighborhoods, he sees opulent mansions that are testaments to the manhood of the men who own them, right down to their bulbous green lawns, like great big “breasts.” In sum, he sees Atlanta as a self-deluded city, thinking it’s a model of prosperity and cooperation, but actually teetering on the edge of a racial fault line.

All of which is why the book has not gone unnoticed here. “A Man in Full” has been gabbled about by “le tout Atlanta,” to borrow Wolfe’s phrase. It’s been featured nearly two dozen times in the last month by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And it’s been Topic A in coffee shops and dining rooms and shopping centers, from Buckhead to Auburn Avenue.

Still, Wolfe’s book seems unique compared to past events that have thrust Atlanta into the national limelight, because no one is obsessing. There is none of the panic and hand-wringing that made Atlanta the urban Uriah Heep during the 1996 Olympics and the several World Series and the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

“I think this book will pass through Atlanta like a breeze on a summer afternoon,” said Fred Willard, author of a slighter Atlanta novel, “Down on Ponce,” with pride in his voice. “Maybe some rich people won’t like it. But--haw--oh well.”


Even the rich don’t seem that ruffled. One of Wolfe’s stops here will be the Piedmont Driving Club, an uppercrust enclave that dates back to 1887. In the book, Wolfe calls it “the very sanctum, the very citadel of White Establishment Atlanta.” Yet he’s being welcomed there. That such an acid-tongued critic of the club should be feted behind its high walls, after portraying members as snobs trapped in an eternal Grey Poupon commercial, may be more shocking than anything Wolfe wrote.

“We’re sold out and we probably could have had him here two days in a row,” says Driving Club general manager, Harry Waddington, who declined to say how much members were paying for the privilege of eating with the man who lampooned them. “We’ve come a long way.”

Irritating Irony

It’s an irritating irony about a writer as revolutionary as Tom Wolfe that little, new can be said of him. But how the 67-year-old author came to choose Atlanta as the setting for his sprawling new book, which some already are calling his magnum opus, is fresh business.

Grandson of a Confederate rifleman, native son of Virginia, Wolfe always had a natural affinity for the South. But in recent years, he became enamored of Atlanta, visiting often as the guest of his friends Mack and Mary Rose Taylor, one of the city’s most visible power couples.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Wolfe and the Taylors explored the antebellum plantations that wealthy Atlantans maintain for the sole pleasure of shooting quail 13 weeks a year.

“We do live in an age in which you can’t make those places up,” he said, chuckling during an interview at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. “This country is really something. You have to go see--no one’s imagination is that good.”


But what truly whetted Wolfe’s appetite for Atlanta was a dinner party given in his honor by Mary Rose Taylor, to which she invited the city’s top commercial developers, whose soaring egos were then being made manifest in the uprushing skyline.

It was the end of the ‘80s, and the developers weren’t the only ones flying high. Wolfe was still flush from the triumph of his 1987 novel, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which sold 730,000 hardback copies and enlivened the popular vernacular with phrases like “social x-ray” and “Master of the Universe.” There the author sat, listening intently as these mega-rich men spun stories about fortunes won and lost. Late in the evening, he turned to the woman at his elbow and purred, “I think I’ve met a Master of the Universe.”

A book was born.

But it remained frozen in embryo. Despite his deepening fascination with Atlanta, Wolfe failed to see the city as legitimate literary terrain. So for eight years he toiled on a follow-up to “Bonfire,” stubbornly putting his Southern characters in Manhattan, where they didn’t want to be.

“I’d turned in 800 pages to Jonathan Galassi, my editor at Farrar Straus Giroux,” Wolfe recalled. “We were having lunch and talking about the book and I started telling him all these stories about Atlanta. And I said, ‘You know, Jonathan, I wish in a way I’d set this book in Atlanta.’ And without batting an eyelash, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ ”

On a manuscript so near completion, Galassi was proposing radical surgery. But Wolfe didn’t balk. He began researching Atlanta in earnest, reworking the manuscript in bold strokes. But then he suffered a heart attack, perhaps the result of those eight stressful years spent in a blind alley.

“A bit of a bore, let me tell you,” he said of his illness. “I had this huge bypass--The Grand Quinella, they call it.”


After heart surgery came a strange post-op complication, a euphoria unlike anything he’d ever known. “I’ve never felt better in my life,” he said. “I became a different person. My children couldn’t believe what they were seeing. I [would] cackle out loud in the restaurant at the slightest thing that was funny. I [would] get wonderfully angry, which is not like me.”

He also would work like a fiend, piling up chapters that would become the Atlanta portions of the book until a bout with depression delayed him further. “When you’re depressed, you can’t write. You can’t read. What’s the point? What’s the point of learning about ancient Thebes?”

One of the Most Important Cities

Atlanta, Wolfe proclaims, is one of the nation’s four or five most important cities. Asked to support this bold claim, he points to Atlanta’s vital role as a travel hub, its exploding population, its monolithic TV network and its bewitching energy, which he calls “hypomania.”

Observing Atlanta grow in leaps and bounds, while naming every new building and boulevard “International This” or “World That,” Wolfe sees the city positioning itself to become the next great international center--”Chocolate Mecca,” as one of his characters calls it.

“Right now,” Wolfe said, “New York is the place you have to go if you want to be where the most important things are happening. It used to be Rome, certainly back in the 17th century. Then it was Paris. At one time it was London.”

In the 21st century, he adds, it may be Atlanta.

To contain all of Wolfe’s theories about Atlanta, a protean hero was needed. Wolfe’s protagonist, Charlie Croker, combines traits of all the developers Wolfe met: A 60-year-old rooster, he’s also a likable ex-football hero, an unreconstucted Cracker, a boorish bigot, a self-aggrandizing spendthrift and a charismatic millionaire up to his half-bald head in debt. It’s not hard to imagine why two of the developers Wolfe met at that long-ago dinner party were grumbling when they bumped into each other at a popular eatery. “It took a lot of nerve,” one said to each other, “for him to write that book.”


But that’s about the harshest criticism of Wolfe you’re likely to hear around town.

City Not Always So Thick-Skinned

Atlanta has not always been so nonchalant about its place in literature.

With the release 62 years ago of that other Atlanta novel, “Gone With the Wind,” the city reacted as if the result of the Civil War had been reversed. Author Margaret Mitchell was hailed as a heroine who put Atlanta on the map, which is why her house has become a local landmark, with Mary Rose Taylor as its curator.

Now along comes Tom Wolfe, not putting Atlanta on the map, but pinning it to the mat, like an exotic butterfly for all the world to examine, and the ho-hum reaction shows how much has changed since 1936. Maybe Atlanta has finally achieved a maturity for which few people give it credit.

“Atlanta is a more sophisticated city than it used to be,” said former Mayor Maynard Jackson. “We’re far more able to roll with the punches.”

But maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe Atlanta isn’t “The City Too Busy to Hate,” as it’s been billing itself since the 1950s, but the city too busy to read. After all, “A Man in Full” is fully 742 pages, as thick as the Atlanta phone book.

“That’s a B-I-I-I-G BOOK,” said Marvin Arrington Sr., a prominent lawyer and former politician who helped Wolfe in his research, and admits sheepishly that he hasn’t gotten around to reading “A Man in Full.” Though he quickly adds that he plans to. Soon. Very soon.

People who know the city best say that even those who haven’t read the book have at least read excerpts or heard about them, and the measured reaction is proof positive that Atlanta is learning to take constructive criticism.


“Did the city of Dallas cry about J.R.?” asks Gary Pomerantz, author of an acclaimed history of Atlanta, “When Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn.” “Did New Orleans cry about Blanche Dubois?”

Mary Rose Taylor, one of the Atlantans to whom Wolfe dedicated the book, said some will be offended, but most will be honored that a man of Wolfe’s immense talent took the time to paint a portrait of their city.

“Maybe I just love every aspect of Atlanta so much,” she said, “and identify with every enclave, that it’s difficult for me to understand how someone would look at a particular scene adversely. Everybody gets knocked in this book. And everybody gets exalted.”