Bonfire of the Vanities first edition
First edition

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Novel, 1987
approx. 267,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

"And then say what? Say, 'Forget you're hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem—'"

Great lines

It was all over. There was no hope now. The darkness closed in around them. And then I noticed the most peculiar thing. Sherman was smiling.

"What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses..." Ah well. There are compensations.

He did not discuss what happens when one's self—or what one takes to be one's self—is not a mere cavity open to the outside world but has suddenly become an amusement park to which everybody todo el mundo, tout le monde, comes scampering, skipping and screaming, nerves a-tingle. loins aflame, ready for anything, all you've got, laughs, tears, moans, giddy thrills, gasps, horrors, whatever, the gorier the merrier. Which is to say, he told us nothing of the mind of a person at the center of a scandal in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later. For the first time he realized that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father....

Last line

Mr. Fallow, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the McCoy case, could not be reached for comment. He was reportedly on a sailing vessel in the Aegean Sea with his bride of two weeks, Lady Evelyn, daughter of Sir Gerald Steiner, the publisher and financier.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities


Filling the cavities

So many people, whose opinions I otherwise value, have told me how incredibly impressed they were by The Bonfire of the Vanities that I wonder what I'm missing, since I have only a middling appreciation for Tom Wolfe's first novel.

I can tell you though what the book is missing: A heart.

I know that's corny and simplistic. What does "heart" mean anyway? Sentimentality? A happy ending? Inspirational passages?

The Bonfire of the Vanities is certainly one of the cleverest novels you'll ever read.

Not clever in its plot—it is somewhat simple compared to your average legal thriller these days. A rich, white guy and his mistress take a couple of wrong turns in his car and end up running down a black kid in a poor neighbourhood. The woman was actually driving but various forces—including the police, district attorney's office, mayor, newspapers and community activists—work to catch and convict the guy for the allegedly hate-motivated crime, mainly because he is rich and white.

The cleverness is in how the various worlds within New York are depicted through the eyes of these characters and how they fit together in the big, messy mosaic: the worlds of high-stakes bonds traders, inhabitants of the projects, toilers in the Bronx court system, tabloid reporters at their hangouts, Park Avenue high society at their parties.

And, this being Tom Wolfe, the cleverness is also in the flashy, overheated, kaleidoscopic presentation of the mental lives of these people. In particular we follow Wall Street wunderkind Sherman McCoy, the rich, white guy who refers to himself internally as a Master of the Universe.

But somehow, despite the endless detail about McCoy's life and despite his thoughts and fears being shared for endless pages, he remains the rich, white guy who is persecuted for a crime he didn't commit although he is guilty of much else. That is, we never really get to know him beyond his role as representing a certain kind of person in New York in the 1980s. This is even more the case for the lesser characters.

I'm not sure why this is so. I'm not sure why some other writers can tell you almost nothing about a character and yet the character takes root in your consciousness, becomes flesh and blood. While Wolfe can tell you so much and yet the character remains bloodless.

Certainly there are in Bonfire many episodes that reveal characters' foibles and hidden strengths. Perhaps this is done too calculatedly. Perhaps we're too dazzled by the surface spectacle to go beyond that level. I don't know what indefinable quality is missing but, whatever it is, let's call it heart.

So I don't care for any of the characters. I don't care about any of the characters because I accept they are just pieces being manipulated by Wolfe to make his cynical points.

And those points being?

Everyone is out for himself or herself.

People are grasping swine.

Calls for justice and equality are covers for cash grabs or power grabs.

And we shouldn't take any of it very seriously. Just sit back and be entertained.

This is a profoundly reactionary book.

Near the end of Bonfire, Wolfe, writing from the point of view of all-seeing author for a change, discusses a belief of certain native peoples that individual minds do not exist, that the community fills the cavity in each person. It's an interesting, even profound idea.

Wolfe takes it as his creed, though in the least profound manner possible. By his lights, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the most superficial matters of social status, wealth and manners are poured into each character to define him. People are naught but the parts given them to play and the costumes provided them to wear.

— Eric



Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities

A Man in Full

See also:

Ellen Foster

Harlot's Ghost

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The Bonfire of the Vanities

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