A few months ago, I spoke to a patient at my hospital who was an English teacher. Obviously, I bombarded him with questions about his personal lit preferences as well as his favorite books to teach. When he mentioned Tom Wolfe, I gave him a knowing glance like “DUH. Who hasn’t read all of Wolfe’s novels?” I scurried out, Googled Wolfe for the first time, and proceeded to order The Bonfire of the Vanities so that I could keep up with the hot high school English class trends. The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Acid Test sounded cooler but I thought it prudent to switch it up after recent reviews on drug-addled books like Fear and Loathing, Just Kids, My Booky Wook, Naked Lunch, etc.
Wolfe is a well-established journalist and novelist not afraid to tackle contentious topics—namely race-relations and the financial current behind them. Specifically, The Bonfire of the Vanities contrasts affluent, waspy white men with the frustrations of dispossessed black men in the Bronx. I can’t help but notice that Wolfe is a well-to-do white man himself. Yet, his words don’t come across as hypocritical or ignorant. He cycles through three perspectives in the book—all exclusively white males; but impressively, the unspoken black voice is what resonates. You’re not rooting for these white men.
The three men in question are Sherman McCoy (a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” who works on Wall Street and lives in a Park Avenue mansion), Peter Fallow (a scumbag alcoholic journalist), and Larry Kramer (an assistant district attorney dissatisfied with his middleclass life). Their lives are interwoven when McCoy commits a crime, Fallow capitalizes on McCoy’s fall from grace, and Kramer prosecutes the case. Such a straightforward storyline might not seem worthy of 690 printed pages, but honestly I was hooked every step of the way. Each detail has a purpose; there is not a single wasted space or worthless description because every minute plot point proves its relevance eventually. Wolfe retains reader interest by adding a little bit of new knowledge with each chapter. The story brilliantly unfolds before our eyes. We don’t learn anything too quickly or too slowly-- the pace is just right…up until the end.
My biggest compliment to Wolfe is his ability to portray the spectrum of human emotion. Throughout the novel, characters are painted by their peers as “good” or “evil” based on an isolated action. Extenuating circumstances are often not considered in our evaluation of others. After a while, it doesn’t matter what you did or who you truly know yourself to be. Your self becomes how other people perceive you. If someone does something bad, we think they are bad, and then we ignore evidence to the contrary. This phenomenon leads us vilify others even when we do the same things as them. Likewise, it prods us to skew the facts in a given situation to help support our steadfast idea of someone’s moral character. In highlighting this generalization of “good” people and “evil” people, Wolfe effectively captures the grey areas that we all know to be true but don’t readily admit. McCoy’s crime balloons into a disaster and takes on a moral weight. Wolfe sneakily reminds us that even this once-womanizing bigot is a human too. We come to see the “pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity” and although we don’t necessarily grow to like McCoy, we come to empathize with some of his more brutal collisions with reality (Wolfe, 669). Ultimately, we’re still looking at McCoy like…
Overall, I appreciate that Wolfe does not shy from the cold truths of humanity’s desire for possession, sex, wealth, and status. Nor does he ignore the corruption of the NYC judicial system or the dogged loyalty of an in-group vs. an out-group. All of these things come up to some degree in every single character, which is precisely why the book’s longevity is so necessary. Admittedly though, I was a little let down by the ending. The way it ended was not disagreeable, but it did feel abrupt. I would have been happier with a longer book and a neater finish. Thus, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. Like many of my 3-humpers, I respect the writing and I am eager to read more of Wolfe’s works. At the same time, I couldn’t look past the conclusion, which felt like a door had been slowly closed in my face. Not a slam—but a premature, unwanted closing. Interestingly, the novel was originally published serially in Rolling Stone magazine. It came out chapter by chapter while in the process of being written (super dope). In this case, I feel like that method probably softened the blow at the end.
Still, I think that the book would be valuable to readers, especially those involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Wolfe literally asks us if “a black life [is] worth as much as a white life” in the American court system (Wolfe, 586). I’m confident that this novel would prove a worthwhile compliment to a movement that validates black lives in the face of systematic opposition.
*Wolfe, Tom. The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. Print.