Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.
I think that one of the most startling things about this novel is that, for everyone who reads it, there is a different pivotal image, a separate moment in the book which forms an axis for the work. For me, it's Sherman McCoy's phone conversation with his estranged wife, in which he talks about the days when, as he went off to work, he would turn on the street under the window where she was watching, and give the black power sign. It meant, to this white son-of-a-lawyer, that he wasn't going to get sucked into Wall Street, that he was only using it; that it wouldn't change him. Fast forward a dozen or so years, and Sherman is 38. He's one of New York's leading Bond salesman, a self-titled Master of the Universe who makes a million dollars a year (and that isn't enough), barely sees his wife, and is cheating with another man's gold-digging spouse. As a matter of fact, when we first meet Sherman, the only redeeming feature he has is that he does seem to really love his five-year-old daughter. Sherman is not the only disgusting character we find as our story opens. There's the mistress, Maria, who laughs at her husband from the confines of her sublet rent-controlled love-nest. The wife is bitchy enough to lose sympathy with the reader despite her husband's philandering. There's the alcoholic tabloid journalist, who is an expert at getting other people to pick up the tab. And there's a thinly veiled reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton, just to complete the picture. When the book opens, the only character with whom the reader can sympathize is Larry, a lawyer who chose to work in the Bronx D.A.'s office because he wants to "make a difference". And yet, the reader is sucked into the lives of these people.Read more ›
In *Bonfire of the Vanities*, pop journalist Wolfe takes a sneering satirical look (from a surprisingly European point of view) at American culture and all of its absurdities and obsessions. New York is treated as the microcosm of 80s America with all of its fads, rivalries, economic woes and class inequality mixing together uneasily and then exploding. Sherman McCoy, the supremely irritating central charater, is a fresh-faced adolescent of 38 years who just doesn't get the fact that the world is a harsh, dangerous place--that is until he becomes the fall guy in a politically and racially charged scandal. Peter Fallow (by far the best character in the book)is a delightfully cynical and misanthropic British journalist who observes the parade the do-gooder activists, slick political manipulators, confused cops, thuggish cops, skeletal society ladies, urban punks, garish architecture, trash culture and trendy clubs with an acid wit and always a few stiff drinks under his belt. If they ever make a real movie out of this book (the existing one doesn't count) PLEASE get Jeremy Irons to play Fallow. Some people see this book as some kind of right-wing propaganda. It isn't. Wolfe, despite his own more or less conservative views, allows the story to tell itself without a lot of interpretation from above. Each character is a complex individual with his or her own unique motivations and mixture of vice and virtue. We spend time inside the minds and private lives of a wide variety of people and are allowed to make our own judgements about who deserves what measure of praise or blame. If there is any prejudice in the book it is against people who simplify complex issues. Wolfe's world, like the real thing, is brimming with paradox.
Regarded by some as the essential literary representation of 1980s America, "Bonfire of the Vanities" was written during the economic boom and urban crime waves of that decade and published almost as the stock market crashed in 1987. It follows the lives of a group of characters who express New York City's ethnic, socio-economic, and political rivalries through their involvement in a highly-publicized case of hit-and-run. A car belonging to Sherman McCoy of Park Avenue, one of Wall Street's most successful bond brokers, accidentally strikes a young black man in the Bronx. With the injured man in a coma, Harlem preacher, politician, and general rabble-rouser Rev. Reginald Bacon sees an opportunity to advance his agenda -by delivering the racially charged case to ambitious District Attorney Abe Weiss and to unscrupulous tabloid journalist Peter Fallow. Prosecutor Lawrence Kramer jumps at the opportunity to bring down a wealthy WASP in the name of equality. And streetwise Irish lawyer Tommy Killian may be McCoy's only ally in a city where truth and justice take a back seat to just about everything.
"Bonfire of the Vanities"' flaw is ironically the source of its strength. The book is over 600 pages long. It follows too many characters and spends a lot of time describing the world from their point of view. The book's insights rely on its many perspectives, but at the same time, the descriptions are cumbersome. Tom Wolfe generally does not cast his characters in sympathetic light. His willingness to call it how they see it draws the reader into the story out of an almost perverse curiosity. The blunt talk and peek inside the worlds of city politics, tabloid journalism, criminal law, and Park Avenue lifestyles keep us interested. The story is found in the self-serving hostilities and interdependencies of New York's many factions more than it is in the sequence of events. And it's all thoroughly plausible, sadly.
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