What I'm reading now

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Geoff Barton on A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe.

Term-time reading can be frustrating: snatched late-night moments rereading the same sentence until you conk out. That is why holidays are so important. It's not just for the break of routine, but also the chance to rediscover uninterrupted reading.

This Easter we flew to Crete and I took just one book. It was a novel by Tom Wolfe, a writer who has long fascinated me. He began as a journalist and, influenced by Charles Dickens, he absorbed the techniques of the great fiction writers into the craft of the journalist. Multiple narratives, different points of view, and an emphasis on sheer storytelling have made an impact on modern journalism. His articles are vibrant, fast-paced and absorbing - everything we want our fiction to be.

Fortunately, Wolfe also writes novels, and is probably best known for his remarkable Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel that captured the materialistic zeitgeist of 1980s America.

Now, 10 years on, he is back, with a doorstopper of a novel called A Man in Full. It is an almost mythical tale of big business, over-reaching ambition, power and intrigue. It begins - in characteristic Wolfe style - with a passage that hooks and holds you, just as we urge our students to do in their own writing: "Charlie Croker, astride his favourite Tennessee walking horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a dee breath. Ahhhh, that was the ticket. He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was."

This is classic Tom Wolfe - precise, visual writing that draws you into worlds you would never have thought might interest you: prison conditions in California, race relations in the deep South, the writings of the early Stoics. It is not a political text, nor a dull moralistic tract, it is a fast-paced narrative, a compelling insight into the corrupting influence of money, ambition and greed.

I was able to find time on holiday to read a hundred or so pages a day. I wallowed in it and, as a final treat, left myself the last 70 pages to read on the flight home.

Then disaster struck. The child next to me fidgeted throughout the four-hour flight, asked questions and did what children generally do. Still, it was my own son. So now back at school, I have slightly lost momentum with the book at a critical stage. The tension appears to have disappeared - perhaps because my reading has become disjointed, or perhaps (as I suspect) because there is a flaw in the latter stages of the storyline. It is nevertheless a wonderful read, and the perfect excuse for being antisocial on your next holiday.

Geoff Barton teaches English in Suffolk. He also writes textbooks What are you reading now? curriculum@tes.co.uk

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