Tom Wolfe spent years researching and writing what would become perhaps his most significant novel, 1998’s “A Man in Full,” and the city of Atlanta was collectively proud and apprehensive to be in the crosshairs of the writer’s gimlet-eyed scrutiny.
Atlanta’s jitters manifested early. Wolfe came to town to celebrate the November publication date, but the Buckhead Coalition withdrew an invitation to speak at its annual meeting, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, because of Wolfe’s purported “Buckhead bashing.”
Elsewhere the book was well-received, and sold 750,000 copies by Christmas.
Today Atlantans cite Wolfe’s portrait of the city, and of financially troubled real estate developer Charlie Croker, as spot-on.
Like New York’s securities brokers of the go-go 1980s (skewered in Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities”), Atlanta’s real estate developers of the 1990s were off the chain. “It was such a gilded age, and it was so easy to make money at that time,” said James M. Ottley, whose family name is preserved on street signs, and whose family land became Lenox Square.
One of the book’s nice touches, said Ottley, a real estate lawyer himself, occurs when the bankers call in Croker’s loans, and take away his airplane to rub his nose in his misdeeds. “Real estate developers hate nothing worse than having to give up their airplane.”
There is also something about Wolfe’s phrase-making and Dickensian characters that is hard to forget.
Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta History Center, said, “I can’t drive down Habersham Road or Tuxedo or Andrews without thinking of him describing the ‘rolling, green-breasted lawns of Buckhead.’ You can’t get that out of your head.”
Hale, a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer, also appreciated the scene in which the fictional Croker is “sweated” by the bankers, though not everyone was charmed. “I didn’t feel compelled to spend any more time with those people on the page,” said author and AJC Decatur Book Festival founder Daren Wang. “I saw them every day.”
In one set piece, the black-tie patrons of a Piedmont Driving Club party are swallowed up in legendary Freaknik traffic. Hale can attest to its accuracy, because he was there. “It was an awesome party for everyone.”