This is part one of my multipart series regarding the legendary writer Tom Wolfe.
‘Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.’ – Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
In 2018 Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. passed away, leaving behind one of the great literary legacies of all time in America. At 88 years old, he had lived an expansive life as both a writer and newspaperman. While known for great nonfictional works, his fiction is considered to be some of the most noteworthy in modern Americana. In many ways, his great fictional work has done its part to capture the current American spirit. Raw, edgy, cynical, and above all insightful, Wolfe’s works resound still to this day.
‘A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.’ – Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Bonfire of the Vanities was published in its full form in 1987, starting Wolfe’s fictional career as a novelist. The book is not for the faint of heart, largely due to its scathing betrayal of human nature over 690 pages. Set in New York City during the “Batman Gotham-like” 1980s, Bonfire follows the lives of three men eking out their existence in the wealthy yet racially charged metropolis. All of them have agendas that cross in a disastrous fashion, threatening to tear the diverse city apart.
‘Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor-a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise at him! … Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting?’ – The Bonfire of the Vanities
While the narrative begins with a humorous prologue from the mayor, it discords and leapfrogs between the three protagonists: the WASP bond-trader Sherman McCoy, the British journalist Peter Fallow, and the Jewish Assistant DA Larry Kramer. Each of these men is morally bankrupt in their own distinct way. McCoy is having an affair while living in largess, Kramer is scheming to sleep with a juror while he climbs the political ladder, and Fallow is a resentful alcoholic looking for a slanderous scoop.
‘How the stories circulated on every campus [about finance]! If you weren’t making $250,000 a year within five years, than you were either grossly stupid or grossly lazy. That was the word. By age 30, $500,000–and that sum had the taint of the mediocre. By age forty you were either making a million a year or you were timid and incompetent. Make it now! That motto burned in every heart, like myocarditis.’ – The Bonfire of the Vanities
What unites the narratives is a single event in the Bronx one night. McCoy picks up his mistress from the airport and accidentally ends up in a bad part of town in his car. The sleazy duo are then accosted by two black men at a makeshift barricade, only for McCoy and his lover to escape by running over the younger and more innocent of the two assailants. Thinking that they have dodged a bullet, both lovers move on with their lives. Unfortunately for them, the bonfire has been lit for everyone’s vanity.
Soon enough the journalist Fallow is piecing together the story, as is the DA assistant Kramer. On top of all of this, the politically active Reverend Bacon (based on Al Sharpton) is working his own narrative, acting as a defender of the severely injured assailant. Slowly but surely, the reader sees the downfall of the wealthy McCoy, both out in the public perception and in his inner household. From ballroom to boardroom to courtroom to jail, McCoy is forced to endure humiliation after humiliation.
Interestingly enough, the book ends somewhat inconclusively. While the district attorneys have finally seized their coveted “great white defendant,” they too have made their own disastrous errors while the city is in an uproar. Ultimately, the story isn’t about the trial of McCoy but about the people who interact with the criminal justice system on a daily basis. It’s gritty and profound in the deepest sense. Wolfe shadowed multiple professionals during his work, lending an air of authenticity not often found in fiction.
Ultimately, Wolfe damns New York City for its vile duplicitous behavior. No one is actually seeking justice as they dance about racially charged issues and verboten topics of discussion, instead choosing to further their own petty lives. The only innocence truly seen in the story is when McCoy interacts with his young and confused daughter who childishly struggles with the events transpiring. It’s deep stuff and sobering at its very core, which is par for the course for all of Wolfe’s novels.
Next time, we will dive into another Wolfe novel, this time set in the heart of the Ivy League!