Wolfe, Tom: The Bonfire of the Vanities

The proposer first read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1990, shortly after its publication in 1987. He loved its energy and humour. He identified with and felt sorry for Sherman McCoy, the bond salesman whose enchanted life as a master of the universe falls apart. The proposer knew three solicitors who had found themselves caught up in scandals, two of whom had committed suicide. He now wanted to revisit the book to see if it retained its contemporary relevance and comic zest.

Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931. He majored in English at Washington and Lee, and then did post-graduate studies at Yale. He became a successful journalist, and collaborated with Truman Capote and Hunter Davies in the “New Journalism” movement in which various literary techniques were mixed with traditional even-handed reporting. He also wrote fact-based books including “The Right Stuff”, which was made into a film in the 1970s. By this time he lived in New York where he was noted for his white suits, cane and hat – all to suggest a Southern Planter.

His lengthy and polemical introduction to the novel sets out his aesthetic. He felt the American novel had lost its way around 1960, when the novel as “sublime literary game” displaced realistic depiction of society in the style of Dickens, Zola, Faulkner or Steinbeck. The traditional novel was seen as dead, and in its place came Absurdist novels, Magic Realist novels, novels of Radical Disjunction, Neo-Fabulist novels, Minimalist novels….Wolfe, however, was clear that “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him”.

This novel had a long gestation period. Wolfe wanted to write a novel that captured New York and its wide spectrum of society in the 1980s in the way that Dickens and Thackeray had captured nineteenth century London, and Zola had captured Paris. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” was the novel that particularly appealed to him as a model, and is echoed in his title. And, finding he was procrastinating, he agreed with his editor to publish the novel in serial form in the best Dickensian tradition, in the hope that the magazine deadlines would impel him to apply himself . The novel was duly serialised in “Rolling Stone”, and the technique proved very successful in getting Wolfe to apply his shoulder to the wheel.

The published novel, three years later, had significant changes from the serial version, with McCoy being changed from writer to banker, and Judy’s role diminished while that of Fallows increased. Sales were very high, and, as icing on the cake, race riots and a Wall Street crash shortly followed publication. Wolfe was seen as strangely prescient.

So what did we make of it? The first issue raised was length. Your scribe’s copy runs to 741 pages, and they are big pages with small print, so it weighs in at around Dickensian length. In the Book Group’s history of nearly ten years, “Berlioz Vol.1” was the only other book of comparable length we could remember. And for some it was slow to get going and too long overall, but all of us found ourselves soon caught up in the story, which was quite a page-turner. Perhaps some of Wolfe’s detail was unnecessary or uninteresting, but the same is true of Dickens. The length of the book may be partly caused by its episodic magazine base, as with Dickens, but detail is integral to Wolfe’s realist aesthetic.

So…. (your reporter paused briefly at this point to wince at the “South Australia Shiraz” he had picked up in his haste)…..

What sort of novel is it?…( and what kind of wine do you expect for £3.99?)…

At one level it is indeed social realism, with the vast gulf between the rich of Manhattan and the poor of the Bronx starkly delineated, as is the fear of the white rich towards the black poor. And there is almost no connection between the two worlds. Wolfe has succeeded in capturing a city. Social change is recorded, as the historic roles – Irish the police, Jews the manufacturers, Italians the retailers, and the Wasps in the professions  – are breaking down. The dispossessed are getting more and more bitter, and there will be more and more explosions.

Lord Buffing, who is dying, gives a speech at a dinner which evokes Poe’s “Masque of Red Death”, with the rich trying, and failing, to escape the plague by staying in a well provisioned palace cut off from the poor. The idea that the New York rich cannot escape disaster is also echoed in the scene where Ruskin drops dead despite the gross lavishness of the restaurant where he is dining.

But, in our view, above all the novel was a satire, and a black satire at that. Wolfe does not take aim only at the glittering world of excessively rich bond brokers – the masters of the universe – and their partners. He also sets his sights on corrupt mayors and on DAs who pursue re-election rather than justice. He exposes the synthetic outrage of black community leaders who chase wealth and power, not social progress. He exposes newspapers and journalists whose priority is  sales whatever the truth and whatever the cost to individuals. A world, in short, of greed, lechery, vanity, dishonesty and corruption – everyone, rich or poor, white or black, has an angle. Everyone is on the make. Everything has a price.

There are only one or two characters who have any moral scruples, and they are minor characters. The most striking is Judge Kovitsky, who, obscene and venomous as he is, actually believes in justice.

This vision is in some ways bleaker than that of Dickens, whose hypocrites, graspers and social climbers are always counterbalanced by people of integrity and human kindness. It means that many of Wolfe’s characters are caricatures, which is the nature of the satirical genre. However, some characters do develop into more rounded human beings, in particular bond salesman Sherman (“Shuman”) McCoy and Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer, and to a lesser extent the drunken journalist Peter Fallow. Even then, Sherman and Kramer are very similar people, one of whom made a career choice that led to wealth and the other a career choice that led to relative poverty. This parallel is highlighted when Kramer uses the same flat for a sexual conquest that Sherman has used for assignations with his mistress.

Some felt that this absence of sympathetic or virtuous characters led to the inconclusive ending – neither side could be allowed to win. On the other hand, the Jarndyce v Jarndyce style gridlock at the end could be seen as further satire aimed at the American legal system.

Ah…the second bottle turns out to be St-Georges-St-Emilion. Better!…..

 The satire is not confined to the big issues of dishonesty and corruption. Wolfe is also very perceptive – and witty – about human psychology. He lays bare the day to day foibles of social one-up-manship, of drinking, of attempts to impress the opposite sex, and of vanity of all sorts. Indeed it is hard to imagine, after Wolfe’s merciless analysis of the social rituals of hostesses at New York parties, that he was ever invited to such a party again.

I’ll keep it in the brown paper bag in case anyone else wants some….

What to make of Sherman? Hero or anti-hero? Is there a clue that he is named – by a southern writer  – after the most brutal of Unionist generals? Some felt that the story is that of the redemption of Sherman through suffering. He has lost all his attachment to wealth, all of his “vanities”. On the other hand, as soon as the court case starts going his way, Wolfe shows how quickly he reverts to type, to boasting about his triumphs to any attractive woman in range. And amusingly Wall Street bond traders are said to have started imitating Sherman’s behaviour as a result of the book.

But it was difficult not to feel sympathy for “Shuman” as his world inexorably disintegrates, to be made in Kafka fashion to realise just how quickly and easily you can fall right through the floor of your comfortable existence.

You can speculate about the real people satirized in the novel – such as black community leader Al Sharpton as the model for Beaton, or Ed Koch as the model for the Mayor, or Imelda Marcos as the model for Madame Tacaya. But the amusement gleaned from trying to make these identifications disappears quickly over time (try ploughing through the footnotes to Dryden’s “Absalom and Acitophel” in search of amusement). What will make this novel appreciated for a very long time is the unerring accuracy with which human weakness is depicted, and the wit with which it is done.

Indeed the most attractive thing about the book is its humour  (which reminded some of John Kennedy Toole). The death of the husband of Foxy in a pretentious restaurant with obsequious staff (which is surely one of the funniest scenes in literature)…….. Shuman’s contortions as he is drawn into a clinch with his mistress while trying not to reveal he is concealing a tape recorder….. everybody doing the pimp roll….The “girl with the brown lips”, object of Kramer’s endless attempts to impress in order to bed her, musing that it was impossible to get laid in New York without first listening to hour after hour of male boasting…..

But, dear reader, I shall not give you 741 pages of examples. Read the book!