#24: Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Begun: 2/25/2011
Finished: 3/29/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

Holy shit.  I have finally finished this book.  I didn’t really appreciate how long it was when I started it.  That’s another benefit of Kindles – you can’t be intimidated or put off by the sheer size and heft of a really long novel.  They all feel the same when they’re ebooks.  According to Amazon the hardcover edition of this tome is 659 pages.  My Kindle for PC app put it at 688.  By any reckoning it’s a long-ass book.

It’s also one of Those Books.  The books that are cultural touchstones, the books that make a big splash outside the literary world, the books that everyone buys and then doesn’t read (although many do read it, I’m sure) because it’s part of the zeitgeist.  Published in 1988, it intentionally captured the dying throes of the excesses of the 1980s, the New Gilded Age, through the pen of one of the sharpest-tongued new journalists, Tom Wolfe.  This was his first work of fiction.  Let it never be said that the man doesn’t aim high.

Ostensibly the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond broker who is involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx while out with his mistress, an incident that later lands a young black man in a coma and Sherman in court while the entire city erupts in racial and class divisiveness, the book is really about phoniness.  Sherman isn’t as rich as he seems, his mistress isn’t as calculating as she seems, Sherman’s wife isn’t as innocent as she seems, and everybody is to some degree unsympathetic.  This book is also to a large extent about men, particularly men in the eighties, and their need – one might say obsession – with being gladiators.  With having women and society look on them with awe, with being powerful, with being respected, with being Masters of the Universe.  Everyone from Sherman to Larry Kramer, the DA who tries his case, is more or less fixated on his own image and the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might have a bigger dick than they do.  Ironically the character who’s most removed from this gladiator passion play is Peter Fallow, the British journalist who first breaks the case open, and that’s because he’s more or less written himself off – is it a coincidence that he’s the character who ends up in the best situation by the end of the book?

The story and the people in it are steeped, stewed and thoroughly marinated in racial and class divisions.  Sherman’s world is all about class, Kramer’s is about race, Fallow’s is about intellect, and all three of them are in different ways prisoners of the worlds they inhabit.  Wolfe is unflinching about every character, about every situation.  We the readers know the truth about Sherman’s accident from the start but even we start to doubt it even as we watch events unfold to swallow up all of Sherman’s thin veneer of stability.

The book starts slow, with many different threads of story and character, each of them getting a really thorough introduction before things start picking up about halfway through.  Wolfe’s machine-gun style of writing (dear God, the ellipses, I thought I was bad about ellipse abuse) is sometimes grating but ultimately fits the subject matter.  He gets inside each character’s head, resorting to some dizzying head-hopping points-of-view by the end of the book, so we’re spared nobody’s least flattering thoughts.

It’s a hell of a book.  Not what I’d call a pleasant read, but one I ultimately enjoyed for purely voyeuristic reasons.


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