That earthquake you felt a week or so back? It had nothing to do with fault zones, volcanoes, or continental drift. Nope. This was strictly a book publishing phenomenon. What you felt was 1.2 million copies of Tom Wolfe's big second novel, A Man in Full, hitting bookstore and library shelves all across the country.

If you've been paying attention, you probably predicted this temblor. It's been 11 years since Wolfe's first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, lit up the literary skies with its rambunctious send-up of New York City in the rough-and-tumble 1980s. In the past three or four months, interviews with Tom Wolfe have begun to appear with some regularity in major newspapers and national magazines, even as Wolfe labored to bring the hugely ambitious new novel to a conclusion. Finally, more than a month before its official publication, A Man in Full was nominated for a 1998 National Book Award. The only question now is how large a popular landslide will follow the initial tremor.

Set mostly in the New South, A Man in Full focuses on Charles Croker, a 60-year-old Atlanta real estate developer and one-time college football hero whose vast, diversified empire is tottering on the brink of collapse under a load of debt. Threatened with the loss of his power and such cherished possessions as his Gulfstream IV jet and a 29,000 acre south-Georgia plantation called Turpmtine, Croker cajoles, schemes, and maneuvers to shore up his overextended conglomerate. One of Croker's decisions drastic layoffs at the Croker Global Foods warehouse not far from Oakland, California introduces a second major character, Conrad Hensley, an immensely likable young father of two who is about to endure an astonishing run of misfortune that leaves him with nothing, not even the shirt on his back. A third and sure to be controversial plot line concerns Roger White II, a light-skinned black lawyer who is hired to represent Fareek the Cannon Fanon, a Georgia Tech football star from the Atlanta slums who is accused of date-raping the daughter of a prominent white businessman.

That Wolfe weaves these plot lines together in both expected and unexpected ways should surprise no one by now. Until the publication of Bonfire of the Vanities, however, Wolfe contended that fiction was moribund. Then came Bonfire and a new literary manifesto ( Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast ) in which Wolfe espoused a type of novel that relies on highly detailed realism based on reporting and a type of story that actually entertains its readers.

And that is the kind of book Wolfe has sought to create in A Man in Full. By all accounts, Wolfe has paid a price for his efforts to produce a novel richer in detail and far broader in scope than anything he has previously attempted in fiction or nonfiction. Literary reporters recount the numerous blind alleys Wolfe pursued in his search for the right story; whole sections were jettisoned as the book took its final form. Ever the perfectionist, Wolfe continued changing and rewriting his manuscript right up to the moment it was delivered to the printer.

Now Wolfe's work is done. A Man in Full is available to the public and it's the reader's turn to determine just how full A Man in Full is.

Alden Mudge lives about a mile from the Hayward Fault in Oakland, California.

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