on July 2, 2004
The much-celebrated novel is a fairly unique one in the landscape of literature. Its 700+ pages and style are, as explicitly stated by Wolfe in the intro, an attempt to return to the grander realism works of the past. He specifically mentions Anna Karenina as the great example of the novel that portrays a cross section of a whole society. Only this is rarely done today, so what we have is one of the only major cross-sections of New York in the 80's.
However, this is a cross-section that is viciously sliced from the meaty flesh of New York society, leaving it gaping, bleeding and exposed, all in a highly satirical and humorous way.
The main story revolves around a high-powered broker and his mistress who are involved in a hit-and-run accident which leaves a young, black "youth" from the Bronx in a coma. The scandal sweeps the city as an epitomy of the racial, economic and cultural differences (and inequalities), as a mob builds up around the case. In terms of the actual plot, there's nothing complicated, rather, its the eye into the eschelons of high, middle and poor society New-York-style that makes this entertaining and enjoyable.
Wolfe exposes the massive slab of hypocrisy present in the society, from the DA who has idealistic tirades about his job (when it's really a vehicle for his extra-marital and political ambitions) to the British journalist who thumbs his nose down on all things American (while scurrying for his next free meal and alcoholic binge).
As mentioned by many reviewers, there's nothing essentially new in the book - as Wolfe said, some of it feels like it's been ripped from the headlines, but in reality much of it is art imitating life. What I liked about the book is its message of vanity and indulgence, and how quickly those superficial bubbles can be burst in a crisis to *make* a person "ordinary" again. True to an almost century-old tradition in books, there are no real heroes here. But still, despite all the horrible things the main character has done, I found myself feeling sorry for him and somewhat admiring him by the end.
Other complaints have been the superficial role of women in the book, but again, I think that's simply an extension of the superficiality of a section of society that spends more on a painting frame than a cop earns in 6 months.
Overall, a great book that speaks without being preachy and has a lot of very funny moments.
on June 17, 2004
I cannot believe that it has actually been over a decade since I read Tom Wolfe's THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES; it is a brilliant and hilarious entertaining work of satirical fiction, and a dead-on accurate social commentary of everything that made up the 1980's, commonly (and accurately) known as The Greed Decade. This includes the incendiary racial conflagrations that had been simmering throughout the 1970's that finally began to unravel during the 80's, aided and abetted by an increasingly sensationalist media that practiced underhanded "divide and conquer" tactics in order to keep the middle and working classes down by improperly (and sneakily) shifting the discussion from class to race.
Wolfe captures all that here, albeit in a lighter tone, by following four separate tracks concurrently, and how they all come together: Financially successful but amoral and philandering nouveau-riche bond trader Sherman McCoy, professional successful but financially wanting assistant prosecutor Lawrence Kramer, professionally unsuccessful and perpetually inebriated British-born tabloid 'journalist' Peter Fallow, and socially powerful (but under-respected) self-proclaimed African-American leader Reverend Reginald Bacon. The bonfire that their vanities create is fascinating; but what is best about this book is the insightful and real-to-life humor/social commentary that Wolfe weaves into the story throughout. If you're a relatively young reader who was born in the 80's and thusly do not remember it the way that, let's say, those of us born in 1967 do, then the reading of this book is absolutely essential to understanding all the different dysfunctional facets that made the 1980's the way it was.
Do not be put off by the story's length (705 pages); it is so enjoyable and is such a compulsive page-turner that it is likely that it will only take you a week or less to get through it all. Pick this one up and treat yourself to the hilarious world of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES---and if you must, rent the 1990 Brian De Palma-directed misfire and see just how totally inept Hollywood was in capturing this world. THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has earned its proper place one of the greatest---and most important---works of fiction in the 20th Century.
MOST RECOMMENDED; AGES 17 & UP
on July 17, 2000
Tom Wolfe's reputation as a good writer is one of those things that escapes me, rather like the appeal of figure-skating and the music of Dean Friedman. His fans claim him for a dazzlingly witty writer and an inventor of a whole new style of journalism - which style seems to me to be a pathological delusion that we are more interested in him than in what he writes about. His book on architecture is farcically shallow, and his major contribution to 20th century prose style seems to be the introduction of multiple exclamation marks to signify when he's being funny.
So, no, I don't like him. Skip to the last paragraph if you feel you've heard enough of my opinion. The Bonfire of the Vanities was a major publishing event, as it was Wolfe's first venture into fiction; he had claimed for years that contemporary fiction writers had abandoned the idea that fiction had anything to say about the real world, ignoring the fact that a really _good_ novel like Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" is chock-full of information about military technology, the complicity of America in colluding with Nazi science (hiring the borderline war criminal Werner von Braun to work on the space program, for example) and historical examples of genocide. Hence, he turned out this galumphing "satire" in which a yuppie is prosecuted for knocking down a black man in his car. Wow. Like, daring. Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" was a far more visceral registration of 80s greed than Wolfe had the nerve to dream up. The best thing about this book is that it gave rise to a very bad but far more entertaining movie.
You may be interested to know that National Alliance, an extreme right-wing group devoted to raising the consciousness of the white race, list this book on their website as recommended reading, along with "The Turner Diaries" and the works of Alfred Rosenberg. You can even buy it from their online bookshop (National Vanguard Books). I'm sure Mr. Wolfe would not be happy to learn this, but if he were a better writer they wouldn't have found so much in his work to admire. Just thought it was worth pointing out.
It took me more than a few years to read this book because I had to remove the image of Tom Hanks in the lead role from my mind (done after the first 50 pages). Let it be stated that I love fiction set in New York and the 1980's is a fascinating decade worthy of examination (and post-rationalization). The interlocking story is so well known now that I will not reprise it in this review. Suffice it to say that this is a tale of greed, morality, ego, "classes", and lost values. Wolfe walks and drives us all over New York and it is a dizzying and fun trip.
on February 10, 2005
It's not often that you could say that a book changed your life, but Tom Wolfe's BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES did just that for me. No, it's not life changing in the way that McCrae's BARK OF THE DOGWOOD is, with its glorious food for thought, hysterical passages, and extreme messages, but it did make me think on an entirely new level. I was a college drop-out doing nothing with my life and one day my sister gave me this book. I'm not a big reader but I could not put this book down. I became completely involved with the great characters in this book, young attorney, Larry Kramer, writer Peter Fallow, Reverand Reginald Bacon, and of course, Sherman McCoy. Wolfe wrote in such terrific detail that you feel as if you'd known these characters all your life. I started talking about them in conversations like they were close friends of mine. The story itself is incredible, taking you through the highs and lows of four main characters with Sherman being the tie that binds them all. Now, as for the life-changing part, I knew very little about the stock market, but after seeing the high-life that Sherman led, the luxury car, the Park Ave. Co-Op, and of course his lovely ladies, wife Judy and mistress, Maria Ruskin, I knew thats what I wanted for myself(except for the mistress, of course). So, I took a couple of classes, read a few books and I passed my stockbroker exam on the first try. Wall Street has been great to me--I have a job I love, great friends and surroundings and I met my wife at my firm. In short, I have never been happier and I have Tom Wolfe and his tale of a wealthy financier to thank. Must also recommend the DOGWOOD book by McCrae and another called A MAN IN FULL by the author of BONFIRE.
on June 13, 2004
At some point in the 1980s, Tom Wolfe published an article in Harper's magazine promulgating the death of the social novel. The article caused a little stir among the literati, and sent legions of younger authors into cigarette-stimulated frenzies, hurriedly working on churning out the next great American "social" novel; like a fresh Americanized Dickens for the impending turn of the century. Well, it turns out Wolfe himself was doing the exact same thing, and it makes one wonder if the portending article was nothing more than an early plug for his novel-of-the-decade-to-define-the-decade.
"Bonfire of the Vanities" is most certainly a smart and transcending novel, completely cognizant of the politics of an era defined by greed and lack of sympathy. Reading it now as we bulldoze on past the millenium mark, it seems just as appropriate and necessary as ever before. Wolfe really has created a masterpiece here, with all the types of characters one would expect from late 1980s New York: the smug stockbroker; the weaselish journalist; the fawning assistant D.A. All these people are arrayed amid a boiling cauldron of vanity which exudes the societal malfunction of the era.
on June 11, 2004
Yes, the plot drives itself.
Yes, the chracterizations are often vivid, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
Yes, the style and is agreeable and never too inconsistent with any given character at hand.
Yes, Wolfe shows and conveys his knowldge of the socio-economic stratums of America in book form. His insights into the relations between these groups and within them is noteworthy. He's well-travelled.
But, the novel is essentially nihilistic - yes, grandly and lavaciously nihilistic, but nonetheless nihilistic.
It is also too long. The writing helps justify the length, but the plot, the wonderfully simple plot does not!
And I'm not one for "gender studies" but the depiction of women in this novel is weak, marginal, and miserable.
I don't feel as if I wasted my time reading Bonfire( I skipped over the depressing last fity pages) but I feel Mr. Wolfe might have wasted some of his talent.
And what of the loose ends of seemingly important side-plots. It smacks of the dissappointment, I felt after reading his "A Man in Full." So much story, so little ending.
It's well worth the read, and is a modern classic, but some classics have flaws (like the times in which they are based) and they bring down this novel.
It at least brought me a little down.
on May 13, 2004
I can understand how this book was such a milestone. True genius, in the journalistic style--for portraying so well the status and money-obsessed nature of New York, which still holds true today. Wolfe does a terrific, and I mean really terrific, job at describing the city's political climate and how easily people can be taken advantage of once power and money are thrown into the mix.
Each character's intense need to better his or her own situation is at the center of how each of them relate to the story. In that, the story is essentially a description of how five New Yorkers cross paths and manage to further and better their personal situations, at the expense of a rich Wall Street trader's criminal mistake and inward feelings of guilt. Even though Sherman McCoy's character is portrayed as your typical snooty financial industry professional, the way in which he is brought down is dismaying in itself. He is used as a scapegoat for the ills of the White Establishment by a crooked, black political figure (using the hypocrisy of the church to better himself); used as "the Great White Defendant" by an insecure, self-critical assistant DA to make his career as a trial lawyer; used as centerpiece of a tabloid story to build a shallow, alcoholic reporter's journalist career; used to displace blame by a promiscuous, sleek money-hungry trophy wife... The Bonfire shows the lengths people will go to in order to get ahead and the lack of underlying trust for others, irregardless of money and status. The book is a lesson in city life, opportunism, greed, and a fundamental lesson in our very nature and how we operate, in the strict, economic sense of the term.
In another vein, the plot takes some movie-like twists and turns that dont necessarily work well in writing. Overall, an amazing piece of work, but seems very well suited to the screen more than anything else...I still have to rent the movie!!! Overall, a gripping and very accurate rendition of the city lives we all dream of living.
on November 30, 2003
On the surface, the book is a satire of the puffed up 80s. The "Vanities" that are being blown up are all the pretensions that people put around themselves. Sherman McCoy is a man who would've exuded strength and power in a prior age. But is he a "Master of the Universe" bond trader (a term coined by Tom Wolfe, later to make it into the popular lexicon) or just another fluffed up product of society? Indeed, the book explores this question. You'll be surprised by the answer!
Is it just a novel of the 80s? I disagree, for several reasons...
- The greed of the 80s reappeared in the past 5 years.
- If you look hard enough, one of the characters in the book is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
- The deep characters Wolfe creates ring true today.
- New York again sees itself in a time of great change. Maybe there are lessons in this literature?
Is it the Great American Novel? Who knows... But it can be read with "A Man in Full" to understand grit, determination and what does make America different.
on November 5, 2003
Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" was first published in 1987, but 16 years later it is still the best parody of the political and social scene in New York City. Combining his everyday, "fly-over country"-style conservatism with his keen wit, Wolfe lays out a story that sends characters crashing into one another from all socioeconomic levels across the Big Apple.
Sherman McCoy, a stereotypical, ego-maniacal bond-trader, is Wolfe's typical protagonist. The main plot starts when McCoy and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, take a wrong turn returning from Kennedy airport one night, leaving them lost in a bad neighborhood in the Bronx. This is where they cross paths with Henry Lamb, a seemingly innocent kid stuck in a sad world, and Roland Auburn, a neighbor of Lamb's and local drug-dealing hoodlum. In their haste to escape from a neigborhood within their city but light years from anything they recognize, Sherman and Maria strike Lamb with their car, critically injuring him. Once a struggling NYC journalist learns of the story, it becomes a perfect case for the politicians, media, and attorneys to latch on to for their own selfish gain. From there the Lamb case blows up into an ordeal beyond anyone's control, but one that could only descend into such madness in New York.
Wolfe's writing is funny, entertaining, and searing. Through his fictional characters, he presents the perfect condemnation of the ridiculous excesses found in some NYC political and social circles, with specific real-life examples coming naturally to any reader's mind.