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The Bonfire of the Vanities Paperback – March 4, 2008
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Vintage Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the #1 bestseller that will forever define late-twentieth-century New York style.
"No one has portrayed New York Society this accurately and devastatingly since Edith Wharton" (The National Review)
“A page-turner . . . Brilliant high comedy.” (The New Republic)
Sherman McCoy, the central figure of Tom Wolfe's first novel, is a young investment banker with a fourteen-room apartment in Manhattan. When he is involved in a freak accident in the Bronx, prosecutors, politicians, the press, the police, the clergy, and assorted hustlers high and low close in on him, licking their chops and giving us a gargantuan helping of the human comedy, of New York in the 1980s, a city boiling over with racial and ethnic hostilities and burning with the itch to Grab It Now.
Wolfe's novel is a big, panoramic story of the metropolis that reinforces the author's reputation as the foremost chronicler of the way we live in America.
Adapted to film in 1990 by director Brian De Palma, the movie stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Morgan Freeman.
“A big, bitter, funny, craftily plotted book that grabs you by the lapels and won't let you go.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicles the collapse of a Wall Street bond trader, and examines a world in which fortunes are made and lost at the blink of a computer screen. . . . Wolfe's subject couldn't be more topical: New Yorkers' relentless pursuit and flaunting of wealth, and the fury it evokes in the have-nots.” ―USA Today
“A superb human comedy and the first novel ever to get contemporary New York, in all its arrogance and shame and heterogeneity and insularity, exactly right.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“A page-turner . . . Brilliant high comedy.” ―The New Republic
“More than a tour de force.” ―Time
From the Back Cover
Suddenly, one wrong turn makes it all go wrong, and Sherman spirals downward in a sudden fall from grace that sucks him into the ravenous heart of a New York City gone mad during the go-go, racially turbulent, socially hilarious 1980s.
- Publisher : Picador; First edition (March 4, 2008)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 704 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0312427573
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312427573
- Item Weight : 1.21 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.34 x 1.25 x 7.54 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #39,507 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on August 17, 2018
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Sherman McCoy has it all. He makes a million dollars a year selling bonds for a top Wall Street firm. He lives in a 14 room, one-apartment-with-servants-wing-to-a-floor building on Park Avenue enjoying picturesque park views. His devoted wife--a little older than him and not as attractive as she once was--has carved out a career as an interior designer published in Architectural Digest, and his idealized 12 year old daughter attends the toniest private school with it's own shuttle that tools up and down Park Ave. gathering golden children in the promised land. Topping it off is his mid-20's mistress who he joins for the occasional impromptu tryst in another woman's rent-controlled apartment ($333/month)that the mistress--trophy wife of a self-made Jewish gillionaire--coopts from her for $750/month.
Sherman's (SHUHMAN, the mistress calls him through her South Carolinian accent)fantasy life begins to come unravelled when he misses a turn off to Manhattan and ends up in the Bronx one evening after picking up his paramour at Kennedy airport. He goes from missplaced to lost and stops at an on-ramp because of an abandoned tire in his path. Two black youths appear from the side and a larger one come towards him somewhat quickly. This is the point where a spoiler opportunity presents itself to me, I'll resist the temptation, but the upthrust is that one of the youths gets struck by Sherman's car and the balance of the book is devoted to the downward spiral in Sherman's life this produces.
The only flaw in the book occurs when detectives first visit Sherman's apartment to get a look at his car as a function of their hit-and-run investigation. The struck youth went to the hospital with a wrist injury, is treated and leaves with undiagnosed head trauma that later produces a coma (ultimately fatal). He told his mother he had been hit by a Mercedes with a license plate beginning with an R and a second number with a full ascender (my words, not his) like an "I" a "P" or an "F". After a self-appointed civil rights leader/preacher looking for a fast buck produces PR that takes talk of the accident to viral extremes, the police launch their investigation that leads them to Sherman's (and 500 other) doors to examine their cars. With so many possibilities, the police are just looking to eliminate the cars with no physical damage.
Sherman blows the interview and arouses their suspicion. His behavior is not only ridiculous and outrageous, it's also unbelievable. Here he is, a self-styled "Master of the Universe" (as a bond salesman) and he can't act cool in a not even unexpected situation? Here, the author almost lost me. I was very disappointed.
But he had to do this to produce the rest of the action of the book, which was well drawn and monumental. The author's gift of language, or characterization, or descriptive narrative--I could go on--are beyond comparison. This is a masterful story-teller at the peak of his powers.
For those of you that look for "messages" in better fiction, you see how revered American institutions can be prostituted and perverted by the whims of angry crowds and determined behind-the-scenes influencers. Courts aren't supposed to function like the one in the Bronx, but, in context, it seems the most natural thing in the world.
This is not Tom Wolfe's best book, but it's better than just about anyone elses.
Delusional, not despicable. Yes, Sherman is unfaithful to his wife; but... A professor's daughter, she has always looked down on him "from a wholly fictive elevation" while spending his money on attempts at interior design. To her credit, she does not turn against McCoy when he falls on hard times. She takes their daughter and merely disappears, unlike Sherman's duplicitous mistress.
The gods enlighten Sherman in their usual way, through pain and disgrace. Cured of the ignorance that fed his hubris, the man turns into a fighter - unless I am reading too much into the final scene. No, I don't think I am: this is not merely a story of a man stripped of his innocence - sorry, ignorance. Knowing Wolfe's later work and his affinity for Zola, I can think of The Bonfire as one installment from a never-written McCoy family history. Otherwise, why mention William Sherman McCoy, the protagonist's paternal grandfather, a hick from Knoxville, TN, in the eyes of aristocratic New Yorkers?
I take it as a clue: there's a fighting spirit, a certain stubbornness and stand-your-ground diehardism that run in the family and come out when the youngest McCoy is pushed to the wall. "In well-reared girls and boys, guilt and the instinct to obey the rules are reflexes, ineradicable ghosts in the machine." True, but when Sherman faces a demented crowd, his fear and loathing erase this defeatist deference.
By the way, why would a Southerner be named Sherman? My guess is because Knoxville is different: it's in the east of Tennessee, by the mountains; incidentally, Charlotte Simmons of Wolfe's third novel grew up a little further east, over the border in North Carolina. In 1861, East Tennessee voted to stay in the Union; Republican sympathies were strong; Knoxville was divided; pro-Union local guerrillas burned bridges during the 1861-63 Confederate occupation; the 1st Alabama cavalry regiment which escorted Sherman to the sea was largely Tennessean. So there's "Sherman" - the hard-war general and the hard-war tank - and there's "McCoy", but which of them is the real one? - and there's some obstinate farmer in the background who'd fight the slaveholders both sides of the Blue Ridge.
I found two depressing realizations in the novel. First, that we all live in constant fear that the manner of the decline and fall of Sherman McCoy could happen to anyone of us at anytime. We have seen thousands suffer similar fates since, and if we make one politically incorrect move, however unintentional, our lives are over. We are devoured by the mob.
Second, that the constant fear of riots, vandalism and looting is here to stay. Only the forms of appeasement change from decade to decade. My corporate HR person told me the reason we have to take diversity training is because our insurance policy requires it.
The one radiant ray of hope is the magnificent Kovitsky, and our hope for society is for future Kovitskys (based on the late Justice Burton Roberts) to fearlessly defend the foundations of civilization in spite of the forces of political correctness that work to destroy it.
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Also, the Introduction, by the author himself, is worth the book alone (i read the recent kindle edition by Vintage Books), and actually explains it better than any other literature review, what the author tried to do, which is a book "of" New York in the 70s, a "realist novel", which by then was well out of fashion, or out of synch with the preferences of the literary "establishment", who had written off realist novelists as 'squares' who actually thought you could take real life and spread it across the pages of a book. Yes, they could, and no one I have read has done it better than Tom Wolfe...
You can get a visceral whiff of where Wolfe was coming from, when he writes about the "neo-fabulist" authors, as he calls them: "Many of those writers were brilliant. They could do things within the narrow limits they had set themselves that were more clever and more amusing than anyone could have ever imagined. But what was this lonely island they had moved to? After all, they, like me, happened to be alive in what was, for better or worse, the American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history, capable of blowing up the world by turning two cylindrical keys in a missile silo but also capable, once it blew, of escaping to the stars in spaceships. We were alive in the first moment since the dawn of time in which man was able at last to break the bonds of Earth's gravity and explore the rest of the universe. And, on top of that, we had created an affluence that reacher clear down to the level of mechanics and tradesmen on a scale that would have made the Sun King blink, so that on any given evening even a Neo-Fabulist's or a Minimalist's electrician or air-conditioning mechanic or burglar alarm repairman might very well be in Saint Kitts or Barbados or Puerto Vallarta wearing a Harry Belafonte cane-cutter shirt, open to the sternum, the better to reveal the gold chains twinkling in his chest hair, while he and his third wife sit on the terrace and have a little designer water before dinner.... What a feast was spread out before every writer in America! how could any writer resist plunging into it? I couldn't"
What struck me (in the summer of 2020) is how relevant it all feels today, from the crude exploitation of 'the mob' to the tiering of the US justice system in which your income can profoundly influence your fate.
A few of the reviews below have criticised the book for verbosity and unnecessary detail, which surprised me, in an era in which authors routinely take 500 pages to express an emotional landscape Graham Greene could have painted in a third of that. I don't think it's a fair criticism either. The novel is pacy and the scene-setting is there to contextualise the 'vanities' of the title.
I’ve never been so baffled/bored/mystified by a book....... I hate to give up and battled on for 27%, but then conceded that as I would never get my time back battling on with it I gave up.
I really tried but in parts it was almost like it was written in code or an alien language.....or maybe it’s just ‘I didn’t get it’ .
I really wanted to read about 1980’s New York but just could not engage with any of the characters at all and found it far too ‘wordy’ and descriptive about things I just did not understand.
Anyway, on to my next book :-D
Gripped by Wolfe's ability to show the story through dialogue and action. I did not want this book to end.
Struck how women are never portrayed sympathetically, no women's characters are developed. That said the male characters are not sympathetically portrayed. All their faults and foibles are on show, their vanities. Love it!