Bantam Books (1987), 704 pages
The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the select group of books that I’ve read more than once. The date on the inside cover shows that I last read it way back in 2000. Tom Wolfe writes as if New York came to life and penned a book about some of its most self-serving inhabitants. The prose is in-your-face, loud, snappy, and filled with grim humour. Wolfe’s extraordinary satire takes aim at all classes of society and their inability to see beyond the small bubble they inhabit. Early in The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe’s protagonist Sherman McCoy demonstrates the internalised prejudices and lack of self awareness that infects virtually all of his characters, “All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the townhouses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street – a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five.[…] Not once did it dawn on Sherman McCoy that what the boy had seen was a thirty-eight-year-old white man, soaking wet, dressed in some sort of military-looking raincoat full of straps and buckles, holding a violently lurching animal in his arms, staring, bug-eyed, and talking to himself.(p.17-18) New York in 1987 was a city where violent crimes were a regular occurrence (there were over 2,000 murders in 1987 compared to less than 650 in 2013). Arguably The Bonfire of the Vanities main character is a legal system creaking under the weight of over a million crimes a year.
The Bonfire of the Vanities centres around a murder trial and the myriad people who seek to exploit it for their own gain. The District Attorney, Abe Weiss hopes that the case will get him re-elected by showing how he is willing to prosecute a white man for the killing of a black man. Lawrence Kramer, the Assistant DA hopes the case will help his promotion chances and his status in the eyes of a woman he’s having an affair with. The alcoholic leech of a tabloid journalist Peter Fallow is happy to exaggerate wildly to impress his editor. Reverend Bacon seeks to exploit racial tensions whilst lining his own pockets. He uses the victim and his mother to further his own agenda. Roland Auburn is a witness to the alleged crime whose dubious testimony will see him receive a reduced sentence for crimes he has committed. McCoy’s mistress Maria Ruskin seeks to save her own skin at the expense of her lover. The only sympathetic characters are the victim and his mother; Henry and Annie Lamb. There is no genuine empathy as everybody seeks an opportunity to enhance their own position even at the expense of someone else. Indeed climbing up the social and economic ladder at someone else’s expense is the favoured option as not only have you increased your own standing but also knocked someone else out of the game.
Wolfe’s characters regularly refer to others as animals. Their internal monologues and their actions continually dehumanise their fellow citizens to such a point that it is hard to feel sympathy for those who suffer setbacks or celebrate those who succeed. Despite its length The Bonfire of the Vanities is compulsive reading laced with humour and intelligence.