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.
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