Despite the free advanced copies of Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 and Wally Lamb’s We Are Water: A Novel that I got from the Author’s Breakfast at BEA, the cab ride on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive in New York City invoked many wonderful novels set in the Big Apple. One such book is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of Vanities. My copy has been sitting on the shelf gathering dust. Its time has finally come. Set in the 1980s, the modern American satire tells the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street “Master of the Universe” who has it all—a Park Avenue apartment, a job that brings wealth, power and prestige, a beautiful wife, an even more beautiful mistress. Suddenly, one wrong turn makes it all go wrong, and Sherman spirals downward in a sudden fall from grace. Despite the sheer volume, it’s a page-turner. Even though 25 years old the book still has relevance. Misinterpretations, the media, being stuck in a meat grinder, the justice systems, elitism. I’m enjoying it so much.
The Bonfire of Vanities is a great book so far, but not as great as The Great Gatsby, which it so closely resembles. Reading it for the first time 25 years after it was published, I find it completely absorbing; it crackles with wit, insight and drama. Maybe most amazingly, I don’t find it at all dated, even though the New York of today differs so much from the New York of 1987, even before 2001. The book transcends its era, a remarkable achievement for a book so dependent on period details. The Bonfire of Vanities is as realistic as The Great Gatsby is poetic. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a morality tale and the recovery of the hero, and The Great Gatsby seems to have the same structure: serious immorality and perhaps ill-gotten money and luxurious living lead to violence and murder and death. That said, book novels evoke the vibrancy of New York City.