Sunday, September 1, 2013


Well, I understand that I’m only 26 years late. I just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s blockbuster novel about the decadence, excess and injustice of 1980s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).
Bonfire was Wolfe’s first novel. Prior to that he had specialized in the so called "New Journalism" which sought to apply the descriptive techniques used by fiction writers to journalism. Bonfire was Wolfe’s attempt to write a novel which criticized modern American society in the same way that William Thackery Makepiece satirized 19th century England in Vanity Fair.

The book was first published as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine. The idea of serializing the novel appealed to Wolfe who thought of himself as a modern day Dickens. However, substantial changes were made to the story before publication in book form.

I’m not going to bore everybody with a play by play of the plot and characters. This is easily available elsewhere on the net and this book has been widely read.

Although Wolfe’s characters are almost characterizations, and many of his scenes and situations are grossly exaggerated, I found his exaggerations to be rooted firmly in fact. It is a fact that the Young Turks of Wall Street, making millions of dollars on each trade, viewed themselves as "Masters of the Universe," just like Sherman McCoy does.

Sherman is so wrapped up in his power and wealth that he works all the time and is never home. Although he loves his 6 year old daughter deeply, he has become bored with Judy, his wife, as she approaches the old age of 40.

Since Sherman brings down a million dollars a year, enough to pay his daughters tuition at an exclusive private school, and the $21,000 a month mortgage payment on his Park Avenue apartment, he thinks he deserves sexual excitement which his wife is not providing him with. The exciting beautiful gold digger Maria satisfies Sherman’s sexual fantasies and is the cause of his downfall.

It turns out that all of Sherman’s power as a "Master of Universe" is an elaborate house of cards. When Sherman and Maria take a wrong turn off the freeway into the Bronx things go terribly wrong. Blocked on a freeway entrance ramp by a tire in the middle of the road, Sherman and Maria believe they are being robbed. When Maria takes off in the car in a panic she hits Henry Lamb, a young black teenager from a housing project in the Bronx.

And it takes off from there. Henry Lamb, who is considered an honor student just because he shows up in school every day, lies near death in a coma in the hospital. An Al Sharpton - Jesse Jackson type character, the Reverend Bacon, uses the cause of Lamb and his struggling mother as a political football to manipulate New York public officials.

From his posh world on Wall Street and Park Avenue, Sherman is thrust into the criminal justice system in the Bronx. Wolfe describes the crime ridden streets of the Bronx as a jungle and the criminal courts are another jungle for Sherman.

Wolfe’s description of the criminal courts rings very true to me. Although I was an Assistant District Attorney in a rural area in the Deep South, much that Wolfe describes about what goes on at the Bronx Criminal Courts is very familiar territory.

Sherman McCoy is not the only character in this vast sprawling novel who is attached to some vanity which is ultimately cast into the fire. The only characters who come out well are Fallow the muck raking tabloid journalist and the Gold-Digging Maria who is pretty much willing to do anything for her own pleasure and advancement.

This novel still holds up well and has much to recommend it. I have no doubt it will still be being read a century from now.

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