Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe (1987)

My rapidly expanding Tom Wolfe bookshelf, featuring my movie tie-in copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Tom Wolfe, wearing, what else, but an awesome white suit!
After years of being renowned as one of America’s leading writers of non-fiction, Tom Wolfe decided to turn his talents towards writing fiction. But what would he write about? After you’ve covered Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Leonard Bernstein hosting a fundraiser for the Black Panthers, modern art and architecture, and the early days of the space program, where could you possibly go from there??? So Wolfe decided to take on an entire city! Yes! That was the way to do it! He looked out of the window of his townhouse and saw the metropolis sprawling below him…he knew, in that instant, he had to capture New York City in a novel…all the different class levels…racial tensions…fantastic wealth jostling shank to flank with crushing poverty…all the arteriosclerotic old men out there, just making money…yes, this was it! 

Wolfe had toyed for years with calling his novel of the city Vanity Fair, in homage to William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, but he eventually changed it to The Bonfire of the Vanities. The title refers to a historical event in late 15th century Florence. Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who was the de facto leader of Florence, and he organized bonfires of vanities, in which people threw objects that encouraged vanity, which might be anything from mirrors to books, out into the street and burned them. Savonarola eventually fell from power, and was hanged and burned, ironically enough. So, armed with a title and a general idea of where he was headed, Wolfe cleared the decks of all of his other writing obligations, and sat down at the typewriter one day in 1981 to begin his novel. Of his change to fiction, Wolfe said in a 1991 interview with The Paris Review, “So I decided I didn’t want to reach the end of my career and look back and say, Well, gee, I wonder what would have happened if I had tried the novel. I didn’t want others saying, Well, he ducked it. He never faced up to it.” This novel would be his magnum opus! His great work! His big book! His Great American Novel! And the words failed to come to him. How could this be? He, who was so prolific, already the author of nine books! It had seemed so easy! In non-fiction you were confined to the factual, but with fiction you could just make it all up! Stumped on how to begin, Wolfe did what he knew best and did some reporting. Wolfe ended up spending a lot of time at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building-where people kept telling him how bad things were at the Bronx County Courthouse. So Wolfe ventured north to the Bronx to see for himself. In a 1987 interview, Wolfe said, “When I started the novel, I wanted to have the criminal-justice system as a major setting because that’s an area in which I could bring the high and the low of New York together.” (p.225, Conversations with Tom Wolfe

Under pressure to finally start writing the book, Wolfe ended up taking a 100 page outline of the novel to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone and asking if he would be interested in publishing the book serially, the way 19th century writers used to do it. Wenner agreed, and during 1984 and 1985 the very public first draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities was published in Rolling Stone. It did not make much of an impact. Wolfe said in 1988, “I had the distinct impression the population was not thronging the docks waiting for the next issue, the way they did with Dickens.” (p.262, Conversations with Tom Wolfe) It’s pretty remarkable, given the success of the book when it was published, that it was received so coolly when it was serialized. It would be fascinating, if no doubt anti-climactic, to read the Rolling Stone version and see how it’s different.  

The biggest change is that in the original serialization, Sherman McCoy, the main character, was a writer, instead of a bond trader. By changing McCoy’s occupation during his revisions, Wolfe caught onto a character who would capture the zeitgeist of the 1980’s in all its money-lusting glory. Status, one of Wolfe’s favorite topics as a writer, could naturally be explored through Sherman McCoy’s extravagant $2.6 million Park Avenue apartment. Wolfe details and dissects clothes and surroundings like few other modern writers, and that gives his books an unerring sense of time and place. Critics might say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, it’s just background.” But of course it matters! Where did those shoes come from? Are they REAL Manolo Blahniks or are they knock-offs? Whichever one they are, they say something about your status, and how you see yourself fitting into society. Are you trying to impress people? Or do you not care? In Wolfe’s New York City, everyone is trying to impress someone. As Wolfe said in 1987, “Money is a fever in this city right now in a way that it wasn’t in the ‘70s and ‘60s, when it was considered quite vulgar for an educated person to show his wealth. Now you can’t be vulgar enough.” (p.226, Conversations with Tom Wolfe)

Wolfe gets inside the head of these status-conscious creatures, and we hear Assistant D.A. Larry Kramer go on and on in an inner monologue about his $36,600 a year salary and his $888 dollar a month apartment. Kramer is one of the three main characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities, along with bond trader Sherman McCoy and British writer Peter Fallow. Their paths eventually come together after McCoy’s mistress accidentally runs down a black teenager with McCoy’s Mercedes as they are lost in the Bronx. Through Fallow’s sensationalized stories about Henry Lamb, the victim who now lies in a coma, and who is truly the sacrificial lamb of the book, outrage is stirred among the residents of the Bronx. McCoy comes under suspicion when the license plate for his Mercedes is a match for the partial plate number that Henry Lamb told to his mother before slipping into a coma. The McCoy case becomes a huge cause celebre in New York City, and we get to watch as the different vanities compete, all seeking their piece of the pie. 

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a marvelous book. It’s quite a staggering achievement, how Wolfe was able to capture so much in this novel. The book is smart, funny, and vulgar, just like life itself. It is a very dense book, packed chockablock full of vivid descriptions, exclamation points, ellipses, and secondary characters galore! According to Harper’s magazine, Wolfe used 2,343 exclamation points in the book! That’s an average of three per page! (p.255, Conversations with Tom Wolfe) Wolfe was not shy about his own ambitions for the book, saying in a 1988 interview, “I wanted to prove that it was not only possible but desirable to write the kind of novel that had been classified as dead for the past 40 years. The big naturalistic novel of contemporary life.” (p.258, Conversations with Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities was a runaway success when it was published, selling more than three million copies, and staying on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year in hardcover. Wolfe coined at least one term in the book that has stuck, as Sherman McCoy repeatedly thinks of himself as a “master of the universe,” which has come to be shorthand for anyone who works in investments on Wall Street. Wolfe coined other terms in the book, like “social x-rays,” which is how Sherman snarkily refers to his wife’s super-thin friends, and “lemon tarts,” the beautiful trophy wives, usually blonde, of rich older men. 

Wolfe’s vivid prose is on full display throughout all 690 pages of the novel. One sentence that stands out is Wolfe’s description of the sound on the bond trading floor of Pierce & Pierce, the company that Sherman McCoy works for: “It was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market.” (p.58) There are great little jokes throughout the book, like how the law firm that Sherman’s father worked for is called Dunning, Sponget, and Leach. One of the funnier passages in the novel, and there are many to choose from, is when Sherman McCoy accounts for all of the money he makes in a year. Sherman makes about $1 million a year, and although that would seem to mean he’s doing just fine, Sherman actually took out a giant $1.8 million loan to buy his swanky apartment. He thinks briefly about a worst case scenario where he and his wife and daughter had to move somewhere smaller. “There was no turning back! Once you had lived in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue-it was impossible to live in a $1 million apartment! Naturally, there was no way to explain this to a living soul.” (p.143) In Wolfe’s world, status is king, and Sherman would hate having his status so visibly reduced. 

Despite being almost thirty years old, The Bonfire of the Vanities still feels fresh and relevant. It’s easy to imagine the events in the novel happening today, only now it would all happen much faster, and it would happen all over the internet. You might not like the characters you meet in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but you will be entertained by them.  

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