The book you meant to read; The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Plot: Sherman McCoy is a Wall Street bond dealer. Last year he earned $980,000 but still needs more to fuel his lifestyle, wife and mistress. He is putting together a baroque financial deal/fiddle which will earn a commission of 1.75 million dollars. Driving his mistress, Maria, Sherman takes a wrong turn and finds himself in a destitute area of the Bronx. Misunderstanding two young blacks who offer to help, they panic; Sherman pulls his Mercedes out of trouble and kills one of the boys. Maria persuades Sherman to forget the incident. The victim's family is now exploited by a series of grotesques who turn the accident into a cause celebre. Among these are the Reverend Reggie Bacon, a black preacher with a taste for incendiary rhetoric, and Peter Fellows, an English journalist who needs an expose to service his expense account. The police trace Sherman and arrest him. The case is reported in stereo and New York feels self-congratulatory outrage. Sherman loses mistress, friends, flat, wife: all consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities. The novel ends with a news report which scrupulously distorts the truth.

Theme: New York is a steaming stew of poverty and racial tension, bubbling with corruption. The rich are so wealthy and the poor so deprived that the notion of society has been abandoned.

Style: When on form, the language flashes like disco lights in an electrical storm. But there are some flat passages when Wolfe abandons satire to move the story on.

Chief strengths: The novel mimics Dickens and Thackeray in range and energy. Wolfe moves between different social levels with ease and his bite is venomous.

Chief weaknesses: Unlike Balzac and Trollope, Wolfe is not gripped by the process of money making. Sherman's financial chicanery is seen as infantile from the beginning.

What they thought of it then: New Yorkers were not happy and Wolfe was accused of racism and inciting conflict. But the book sold well, hyped after its serialisation in Rolling Stone. Over here it was as fashionable as red braces and champagne.

What we think of it now: The novel looks like an interesting experiment in reviving 19th century panoramic fiction. Critics awaited Wolfe's second novel with anticipation to see how the experiment would develop. They are still waiting.

Responsible for: Brian De Palma's dud film; stoking the fantasies of young clerks who dreamed of making pots of dosh in the City.

Gavin Griffiths

Comments