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[576] The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

bonfire

” All of black New York rises up! He’s the mayor of White New York! Set fire to the mutt! The Italians will watch this on TV, and they’ll love it. And the Irish. Even the Wasps. They won’t know what they’re looking at. They’ll sit in their co-ops on Park and Fifth and East Seventy-Second Street and Sutton Place, and they’ll shiver with the violence of it and enjoy the show . . . Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours? ” (Prologue, p.6-7)

Set in late 1980s New York City, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a panorama of politics, ethnic hostility, the criminal justice system, and distorted humanity. The central figure of this glittering portrait of urban America is Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond salesman living in a 20-room penthouse fatally injures a young black kid in Bronx with his Mercedes roadster. In his company is his mistress Maria Ruskin who is a high=society slut. They flee in his fancy car without so much as a moment’s pity.

Criminal law is a thing unto itself, because the stakes are not money but human life and human freedom, and I tell you, that sets off a lot of crazy emotions. (Ch.11, p.258)

The story of McCoy’s subsequent downfall is told alongside those of other men, all characterized by their raging ambition and vanity: an alcoholic tabloid journalist desperate for a scoop; a power-hungry, manipulative pastor; an assistant district attorney keen to impress one of his former jury members, and the DA who is to face re-election. No doubt it is a legendary case because the defendant is a big-shot, White millionaire who, in the eyes of the public, thinks that his exalted station in life relieves him of the obligation to treat the life of someone at the bottom of the scale the way he would treat someone like himself. The victim is a promising black teenager who demonstrates aptitude for college.

I don’t have to tell you what a crucial issue this is, and one of our biggest problems is all the racial overtones, all the perceptions and misperceptions about who commits and how our police offices deal with crimes. (Ch.27, p.568)

The driving force of this big beast of a novel is the contrasting worlds of McCoy and his victim, Henry Lamb. Wolfe truly revels in the rambunctious, seething world of 80s New York and brings to life a city fraught with racial tensions and steeped in ego. It’s rich, white Park Avenue versus poor, black Bronx.

What strikes me the most is the relevance of the subject matter. People like Sherman McCoy and the charlatan of the manipulative pastor still exist. Greed, covetousness and elitism still prevail if not altogether compounded. Ego and self-entitlement are the new epidemic. Sherman McCoy is coined the “Master of Universe” and Manhattan is the geographical center. It just sounds too familiar in our recent Wall Street disaster. Stuck and lost in Bronx, which practically does not exist in his universe, he panics when two black kids approached him on the road. It’s a tragic freak accident rooted in misunderstanding. As police and district attorney take the brunt for sitting on the case, the privileged protagonist has an attack of money anxiety and confrontation with his family. Truth be told: McCoy is not an evil person—but he did an evil thing. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a page-turner as the high-profile case triggers the simmering racial and ethnic civil war. It’s fun to watch the various interest groups immolate themselves. Sherman bit by bit loses every footing in his life but gains his manhood. The book depicts the vanity of human endeavor and how man’s vain desires only evaporate in smoke.

659 pp. Farrar Strau Giroux. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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