Book reviews · Other topics I care about · Random things I read

A Man in Full

I mentioned in a recent update that I wanted to add another page to my blog where I can put in brief reviews of some books that I’ve been reading.  Two books I’ll be writing about soon that relate closely to the work I do are Grow by Jim Stengel (about how ideals power growth and profit for thriving companies) and Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs (about the power of compelling stories in corporate marketing).  But before I get to those I want to write about two other books that tie well together; one is a modern novel by an author with several books that have been adapted into movies and the other is an ancient book from a Roman emperor and philosopher.  I had no idea these two books connected so well when I started reading them both earlier this year; but now that I have finished both I wanted to share some thoughts about them.  I’ll write below about the novel and in my next post talk about the philosophical work.

The novel is called A Man in Full and was written by Thomas Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff among numerous other novels.  It focuses on an inter-connected set of men in Atlanta near the end of the 20th century and involves issues of race, class, sex, power, and purpose.  Like other of Wolfe’s novels (in my opinion) this one takes a little while to get going as we are introduced to the wide cast of characters, four of whom emerge as the main actors in this vast plot.  Once the story gets moving in earnest the reader is pulled along a wild ride of success, failure, intrigue, and satire that makes this a humorous as well as an insightful read.

What ties this novel to the second book I will write about is the central place that Stoic philosophy occupies for one of the main characters who first encounters a book on the Stoics while in prison.  This man (Conrad) becomes something of a ‘Stoic evangelist’ seeking both to live out the ideal of wisdom in the face of tragedy and to encourage others to take the same approach to life.  The potential influence of Stoic philosophy on modern life added an intriguing element to this novel for me because I was currently reading the writings of one of the last great Stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius.

Unfortunately (again in my opinion) it was at the climax of A Man in Full and Wolfe’s portrayal of how Stoicism might impact the central dilemmas of the novel’s protagonists that this otherwise strong book fell apart.  I felt the same way years ago when I finished Wolfe’s earlier Bonfire of the Vanities; the conclusion of a strong book about race, money, and power in modern America ended with the main characters making choices that seemed not to fit with their portrayal throughout the book.  Instead each of these books ended abruptly and in an unconvincing manner, giving the impression that Wolfe was not quite sure what to do with the grand ideas introduced in the novel.

Although (spoiler alert if that matters to you) Charlie Croker’s apparent embrace of a modernized version of Stoicism at the novel’s conclusion mars an otherwise gripping book, I still enjoyed reading A Man in Full; I also look forward to sharing some of my own reflections on the contemporary relevance of Stoic philosophy when I post my next book review shortly.  And I encourage you to read Wolfe’s novel for yourself and form your own opinion because in truth it’s not that simple.

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