This is the book club book that never was.
It was selected on a drunken evening in Rome or Madrid, I can’t quite remember which, but it turned out that it was a monster. That is lots, and lots, and lots of pages not a horror story. I eagerly snapped up a used copy on Amazon for about £1 including postage and then when we had realised the error of our ways, we swapped mid stream for a second, less taxing choice. We’d never done that before or since so in itself that was something. I can’t remember what we swapped it for, but this book has lain dormant on my bookshelf, daring me to read it, with its sun bleached edges and faded countenance.
It’s sheer girth mocks the casual reader. At over 800 pages it’s a real piece of literature. Tom Wolfe is a proper American author, a serious writer.
The book just exudes challenge: have you got the stamina and wherewithal to read me and not only that, do you have the time to take me in?? I’m a book that requires investment – do you have what it takes? I’d thrown it in to my bag on our recent holiday in the vague hope that I would get it started in case I ran out of other books. But I made good time on the others and I had a day or so to give it a bash.
This book requires the attention of the reader. The characterisation is off the scale – to a depth I’ve not read in a long time. Where one author is content to sketch out a back story over a page or so, Wolfe insists on a chapter at least. His characters are so beautifully etched they put a Leonardo drawing to shame, there are simply no questions about motivation at any stage. In some ways it reminded me of a book from an earlier age – almost Dickensian in the commitment the author required from his reader. Complex, rich plotting ranging from rich bankers to poor immigrants, from real estate tycoons to gridiron football upstarts bring alive an incredibly well researched, rich tapestry of American life set in the deep South of Georgia.
In some ways it’s an old-fashioned book, with oddly stylised sections that to me age the language – but the narrative constantly drives and challenges the reader to take sides, despite the scale of the story and sheer volume of the text. As each piece of new information arrives, the reader is asked to make a judgement. What starts as a classic story of a man, success, hubris and downfall turns into a deeply philosophical take on the human condition.
Wolfe is clearly a literary master. A supreme storyteller in the classic American style, telling vast stories beautifully highlighting the social and financial inadequacies of our modern times. But I think the book comes off the rails at the end, with a cod philosophical ending that’s deeply unsatisfying and quite unbelievable. Sure, it draws the reader to a compelling conclusion and epilogue that ties it all up neatly but without giving the game away, I’m not sure it does justice to his meticulous build up.
But it was nourishing, like a meal that had to be savoured as opposed to rushed. Not perfectly consistent in every single way, but remarkable all the same. I felt at times like I wasn’t really worthy of the skill of the author, much like in a fantastic restaurant where the skill and talent of the chef is wasted on us mere mortals.
Well worth a read – if you fancy I have a third-hand, dog-eared copy going free to a good home.