The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

Bantam, 1987, 690 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-27597-6

I’m not sure what makes a middle-brow classic, but I think that The Bonfire of the Vanities qualifies on most counts. Let’s see: it was widely-reviewed, sold really well, was adapted in a big-budget Hollywood movie (which tanked spectacularly, forever earning another place in history) and has earned 155 amazon reviews so far, which it pretty darn good for a book published ten years before the whole Internet thing took off. Better yet: Tom Wolfe is still writing and commanding attention today, lending further heft to the importance of his first novel.

The assignment, should we choose to admit it, is to read 1987’s The Bonfire of Vanities and see how well it holds up today. Once the novel has moved from contemporary headlines to historical context, does it retain the energy of the period, or does it fade away in irrelevance?

The Bonfire of the Vanities certainly feels like it couldn’t exist anywhere but in mid-eighties New York. A pre-Guliani New York riddled with crime and racial tension, home to the poorest and the richest, playground of the self-styled “Masters of the Universe” ruling over Wall Street and, by extension, the rest of the world. Sherman McCoy is one of those men to whom everything is owed: He can make multi-million commissions by moving around billions of dollars in government bonds, eking out massive profits from razor-thin percentage fractions. He lives in a multi-million-dollars apartment that he can barely affords, owns the requisite Mercedes and has a just-as-requisite affair with another married woman. But a late-night tryst turns sour as he makes a wrong turn in the Bronx and his car ends up hitting a young black man. Outraged media reports quickly lead to an investigation and a very public trial of Sherman’s entire life. In the process, we get to study New York society in action, as Sherman becomes the focus of the media, is thrown to the wolves by his former acquaintances, tries to salvage his honor and loses everything along the way. Right, wrong, fair or unfair become distant considerations in the face of a hefty look at that society at that time.

But beyond a modest crime story anchoring a rich study of characters in distress, The Bonfire of the Vanities is written with self-conscious verve. Passages are written in quasi stream-of-consciousness style, allow us inside the confused minds of the characters. Sherman is quickly exposed as an insecure man barely holding on to his social position. His latter passage through the New York prison system is as harrowing a sequence as anything written in a suspense novel. As flawed as he is, Sherman almost looks like a hero compared to the venal and petty characters that surround him.

The novel is filled with terrific set-pieces, lucid explanations of the way things really work, from the stockbroking room to the justice system or the complexities of upper-society New York. Tom Wolfe may be a media-friendly self-promoter, but there’s a real interest in his prose, even when it becomes flashy and self-indulgent to the detriment of storytelling. It succeeds where other writers would fail miserably, and remains interesting even when it loses its way.

So, yes, The Bonfire of the Vanities is still worth a read even today. It’s a terrific throwback to another era, and a novel that manages to combine ambitious literary goals with a clear and intriguing storyline. The set-pieces are terrific, and the prose is unique. Ah, if all mainstream fiction was just as good, I may never need to read genre fiction again…

[October 2008: Amusingly, I ended up reading The Bonfire of the Vanities at the beginning of the Credit Crisis of 2008, a time where Wall Street finance salesmen ended up in the news again. Strikingly, a good number of the articles and news reports discussing the crisis (nearly 2000 as I trawl news.google.com in mid-October) referred to the brokers as “Masters of the Universe”, the expression coined by Wolfe in the novel. Now if that’s not a proof of an enduring classic, I’m not sure what is…]

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