The Bonfire Of The Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Okay, let’s give this one another shot. About a week ago I wrote a lengthy review of The Bonfire Of The Vanities in this very spot. It was brilliant and full of insight, possibly the finest critique of a major novel that anyone has ever read. However, when I clicked the "Post" button to put my words of wisdom on the site, the entire process hiccupped and my review was gone, lost in the cyber ether. This has forced me to write this new, substandard review that pales in comparison to the one I originally wrote which you, Constant Reader (whoever you are) will never see. Pity, really.

I kid, of course, but isn’t that what this is all about? Vanity? Yes, I believe it is.

Tom Wolfe is the acclaimed writer from the New Journalism that came of age in the 1960s (or maybe earlier…not my area of expertise). His books run the subject matter gamut from the beginnings of the space program (probably his most famous book, The Right Stuff) to the LSD-addled nightmare party of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But it took him over 20 years of writing before he set pen to paper in the service of fiction. The resulting first novel, originally published serially in Rolling Stone, was The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

I first attempted to read this book back in 1990, but I started grad school when I was only 100 pages into it, and the book was placed on the shelf where it was promptly forgotten. Every once in a while I’d see the spine and think, "I really should read that…but not right now." Well, a few weeks ago I had nothing else to read and there it was.

I’m curious to know what my reaction would have been in 1990, when the events and people so lovingly fictionalized here were still playing out in the newspapers. Bonfire is the quintessential "New York in the 1980s" novel. What’s fascinating to me is that the beginnings of the novel first appeared in 1984 in Rolling Stone, and the full book was not finished and published until 1987. Yet Wolfe seems to have caught the New York of the late 1980s in his crystal ball.

With the exception of the Reverend Bacon, who is clearly modeled after either Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, it doesn’t appear that the characters are supposed to represent actual people. Still, the characters are all familiar to anyone who grew up reading the New York newspapers and watching Live at Five for the local news.

There is Sherman McCoy, bond trader par excellence,who refers to himself without the slightest trace of irony as a Master Of The Universe. This title belongs to him because of his salary, his nice wife and daughter, and his smoking hot, man-eating mistress. By his side in good times and better times is Maria Luskin, the voracious mistress who is so wrapped up in herself that her vision extends only as far as the bridge of her own nose.

Nominally, the plot hinges on what happens when Sherman and Maria, Manhattanites to the core, get lost in that urban jungle that is the Bronx. The road is blocked, Sherman gets out of the Mercedes to move the obstruction and is approached by two young black men; he panics, Maria slides into the driver’s seat and, in the ensuing escape, lightly hits one of the black men who falls and hits his head. Two days later he’s in a coma and the police, at the urging of Reverend Bacon and a political hack Bronx DA,are looking for the driver of the silver Mercedes that ruthlessly slammed into and abandoned the young honor student. What they are really looking for is the Great White Defendant, and by luck they find him.

Wolfe tantalizingly never answers the questions that lie at the heart of the book. Were the two young men attempting to rob Sherman and Maria? Or were they really innocents who were just trying to help? There is plenty of evidence that points in either direction.

The injury to Henry Lamb is the sacrifice needed to light the bonfire. Over the next 500 pages or so, the preening Sherman McCoy is reduced to suicidal thoughts, abandoned by his wife, abandoned by his mistress (the woman who is really responsible), forced out of his job. He has gone from being a Master of The Universe to a shell of a man, someone who no longer knows his own identity.

But Sherman’s vanity is not the only one ready for consummation in the flames. Every bit as bad as Sherman is the Reverend Bacon, a charlatan and race hustler who exploits the Lamb family for his own ends. There is also Larry Kramer, the assistant DA charged with prosecuting McCoy. Kramer is so vain he flexes his neck muscles before attractive female jurors, like a peacock spreading his feathers before a tantalized peahen. There is Peter Fallow, the alcoholic British journalist who makes a name for himself with innuendo-laced articles about the case and who stretches the definition of objectivity well past the breaking point. There is Abe Weiss, the Bronx DA who cares only about re-election and sees McCoy as his ticket.

These people, and many others populating this massive book, are all too familiar to this New York boy who spent his young adulthood reading about the likes of Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton, Lester Maddox, Ed Koch, Robert Morgenthau,  Michael Griffith, and Bernie Goetz. Yeah, NYC was  a real toddlin’ town back then, as we kept climbing towards over 2000 murders a year.

McCoy is hounded, even after the initial case is dismissed. Nearly everyone else manages to escape.  Peter Fallow wins a Pulitzer,  Maria flees the country and gets off scot-free. Only the judge who did the right thing by dismissing the case is burned in the bonfire. By doing the right thing, he seals his re-election chances: he now has none.

But McCoy strangely manages to find himself through his travails (for which he is, at least partially, responsible). It is implied in a bogus New York Times article that ends the book that McCoy is once again involved with his wife on at least a superficial level, and has gotten in touch with the man he used to be before he became a Master Of The Universe.

On trial yet again (this time because Henry Lamb has, a year later, died) for vehicular manslaughter, the fourth trial for the same incident, McCoy seems to have found something in himself in his new role as the Great White Defendant.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a time piece now. It is nearly perfect in its evocation of New York City politics in the mid-80s. Anyone reading it will be able to see the bloody core of racial politics and the small-minded hobgoblins that infest politics like so many tapeworms.  Anyone from the tri-state area who is my age or older will pull a whole different level of appreciation. The characters may or may not be modeled on any particular individuals, but we know who they are. We spent a decade reading about them in the New York Post.


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