The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
2008 (originally published 1987) • 704 pages • Picador
And, at last, we come to the New York City reads.
It was inevitable, of course; part of the joy of living here is seeing the city refracted at you in virtually all visual media produced in America. (Captain Cinema and I now have the habit of yelping out locations we’ve been to whenever we see them, including eying the seats in which our not yet born butts will perch forty years later as we watch classic Saturday Night Live.) While I’ve been dying to read The New York City Diaries long before moving here was a sure thing, I decided to save it for my Thanksgiving visit home as a literary tether to civilization in the wilds of suburbia. (The physical tether will, of course, be the stunning amount of hair I’ve shed over this city.) Instead, I reached for Tom Wolfe—it was high time we got reacquainted.
While trying to articulate the peculiar beauty of Wolfe’s writing to Captain Cinema while breezing through one of the Strand’s cozy outposts, I ended up comparing his writing to sleep paralysis. “You know, when you’re so tired that you close your eyes, but you’re not asleep, but you couldn’t open your eyes or move for the life of you, and it’s wonderful?” (If you think I’m long-winded in prose, you should hear me talk.) Sleep paralysis is too extreme a descriptor, of course, but it’s circling what Wolfe’s writing does for me. Reading Wolfe is like submerging into a welcome fever—there’s something warm and compulsive about his writing, that insinuates itself into your mind. After I read The Electric Kool-Aid Test, I woke up with his literary voice in my head the next day. Perversely, this is because Wolfe is such a gifted mimic of not only the human voice, but the human context. I’ll need to read more Wolfe to finalize my conclusions, of course, but, with The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Test as my data, I find that what sets Wolfe apart is his ability to capture the moments that make up a movement, be it in his own voice or in a fictional one. I’d start pulling quotes, but we’d be here all morning.
After my usual post-consumption ritual (the Comparing of the Notes, which is more formalized when it comes to films), I was not surprised to find that it originally began life as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984. Delighted, yes, but surprised, no. Those installments were later revised into the currently available The Bonfire of the Vanities; Wolfe considered the Rolling Stone pieces his “public first draft.” (SCREAM. Also, I am tempted to hunt all of these issues down, because I am already known to snatch up eighties Rolling Stone magazines with little to no preamble.) Wolfe deliberately patterned the novel after Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackery, inspired by their breadth, scope, and, presumably, sheer word count. The size of the thing may give some pause, but, remarkably, The Bonfire of the Vanities is not long-winded. It’s merely brimming with characters, moments, viewpoints, and sharp, twisting observations on the inequities and absurdities of life in 1980s New York. It gives the novel—told from the perspective of several characters, but focusing largely on Sherman McCoy, Larry Kramer, and Peter Fallow—a perspective that I’m tempted to describe as omnipotent, but can’t be. It’s inherently bound by the prejudices and beliefs of its main characters, but the scope… the only thing in my reading experience that comes close is A Song of Ice and Fire. By delivering so many subjective views, Wolfe comes as close as anyone can to constructing an objective one.
And what he captures is an emotional dystopia of excess. Sherman McCoy, after hitting a teenage boy with his car in the Bronx and putting him into the coma that will end his life, tries to rationalize and rationalize and rationalize. In fact, that’s a trait McCoy, Kramer, and Fallow all share. Fallow is merely the most comfortable (which is not to say completely comfortable) with his failings and able to improvise. McCoy’s rationalizations fail in the face of an actual trial; no matter how many times he tries to retell his own story to put him in a better light, the government and the people of the city—always represented in the novel as a mass represented by the man with the golden earring—shove the truth back in his face. Kramer, who Wolfe largely uses to examine a man in a mid-life crisis as well as the legal system of the Bronx, only gets his comeuppance at the end. And Fallow… well, Fallow is rewarded. There was, it seems, a place for morally flexible British journalists in the eighties.
Because the novel focuses on a racially charged trial (Sherman is white and wealthy, his victim black and poor) and largely explores it through the perspectives of white men who are racist and sexist to varying, although omnipresent, degrees, the novel has garnered some criticism for its treatment of race. Specifically, Spike Lee took great and public issue with the film adaptation (which I will get to; I cannot resist Bruce Willis’ Dreamworks face on the poster). Given that Wolfe is of the same demographic as his characters, that’s obviously wholly valid. Because it deals so intimately with these characters’ prejudiced minds, it’s difficult to see where—and if—Wolfe differs from them. There are occasional flashes into other viewpoints. “He didn’t realize that there were women who thought about sexual attractiveness the way he thought about the bond market,” Wolfe says of Sherman of Maria Ruskin, his mistress (76) and a flash into the subject of Kramer’s desire notes that she’s bored of having to listen to men wax philosophically about their occupations. But Wolfe never goes the extra mile and focuses on their voices.
On the one hand, that makes sense: the novel is long enough. On the other hand—how interesting that you can fill up an entire novel with musings on the Great White Males of the world and their white male subordinates and not have time for anyone else.
I rented this novel from the public library.
I work for a division of Macmillan.