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Bonfire still blazes

Ten years after its US publication Tom Wolfe's novel is worth another look. But its bleak vision of mid-1980s New York has fortunately not proved prophetic

By Andrew Ferguson   January 1998

Tom wolfe wrote the first draft of his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities as a series in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984 -85. He was only halfway through when his story was overtaken by events. Novels are not supposed to be tripped up by the morning’s headlines. But Wolfe’s ambition was as much reportorial as imaginative. He wanted to capture the grisly carnival of New York City in the mid-1980s: roiling, putrescent New York, bubbling with irreconcilable ethnic hatreds, wobbling between unimaginable wealth and horrifying squalor, exploited by cynical pols, money-grubbers and charlatans. Wolfe captured it only too well. One of his characters, an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, rides the subway, “his eyes jumping about in a bughouse manner.” In a future chapter, the author had planned to explain the young man’s subway-phobia: he had once been attacked and robbed by a “wolf pack” of thugs on a train in the Bronx. But not long after the early chapter was published, a real-life “wolf pack” descended on a tightly wound subway-rider, Bernhard Goetz, who proceeded to shoot four young black men. Wolfe’s little plot twist was undone. “How could I proceed with my plan?” he wrote. “People would say: ‘This poor fellow Wolfe, he has no imagination. He reads the newspapers, gets these obvious ideas…'”

Similarly, Wolfe gave us the Rev. Reginald Bacon, a Harlem preacher and poverty pimp who uses the accidental death of a black teenager to rouse the rabble. Three months after the novel was published, the Tawana Brawley hoax brought the indescribable Rev. Al Sharpton to prominence. The real-life Sharpton made Bacon look like a divinity student. Then there were Howard Beach and Crown Heights-spasms of ferocious race hatred which seemed old news after Bonfire. When Wolfe recorded with sensual precision the money delirium of Reagan-era Wall Street, the excesses seemed impossible to sustain. Sure enough: as the novel hit the bookstores in late October 1987, the market crashed.

For its prescience, and for much else, Bonfire was the most celebrated novel of its day. For people of a certain cohort-college-educated, urban-dwelling, now pushing 40 or 50-Bonfire comes as close to a universal literary experience as their generation is ever likely to have. You could go to a party and talk about it with almost anyone-as, more commonly, you can talk about a hit movie and assume that just about everyone has seen it. Tout le monde, as Wolfe likes to say, read Bonfire (and called it, by the way, just Bonfire). Ten years after its publication, it deserves another look.

The first thing you notice about Tom Wolfe’s novel is Tom Wolfe. The same is true of all his books-even in his journalism his literary talent is almost preposterously large. His touch is always exact, his prose famously idiosyncratic, with its italics and exclamation points and multiplying ellipses. But he relies on these gimmicks much less than his critics have maintained. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between a flash of lightning and a firefly. Wolfe’s paragraphs are a series of lightning bolts. Here he introduces us to the hostess of a Fifth Avenue dinner party:

A blazing boney little woman popped out from amid all the clusters in the entry gallery and came toward them. She was an X ray with a teased blond pageboy bob and many tiny grinning teeth. Her emaciated body was inserted into a black-and-red dress with ferocious puffed shoulders, a very narrow waist, and a long skirt. Her face was wide and round but without an ounce of flesh on it… Her clavicle stuck out so far Sherman had the feeling he could reach out and pick up the two big bones. He could see lamplight through her rib cage.

Wolfe dwells on the minutiae of work and money-the minutiae, that is, which overwhelm and consume us all, but which most novelists overlook for misbegotten reasons of taste. But Wolfe’s most unexpected gift is shown in his handling of the novel’s enormous plot. At every turn of his wheel the gears engage and disengage with Swiss precision: Sherman McCoy is a bond trader, living with his wife and trophy daughter in a $2.5m co-op on Park Avenue. His principle of urban living is: “Insulation! That was the ticket. If you want to live in New York… you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate, meaning insulate yourself from those people.” But those people keep obtruding. One night Sherman and his mistress end up on a deserted Bronx street in his $48,000 Mercedes. They are confronted by two young black men, and in the ensuing panic one of the kids is hit by the car, falls into a coma and eventually dies. Sherman and his mistress escape back to Manhattan. But within days the insulation begins to unravel.

Bonfire is a novel of inversions. A novelist of an earlier time-Sinclair Lewis, say, a great realist whom Wolfe admires-would spin from this accident a tale of urban neglect, turning the black teenager’s fate into a parable of establishment indifference. But in Bonfire’s mid-1980s New York, where the sky “glows as if inflamed by fever,” the forces of the new establishment are mobilised against Sherman. The unlucky teenager is inflated into the “pride of a South Bronx housing project” by a tabloid desperate to appease the city’s organised race hustlers. The Bronx DA sees in Sherman the answer to his prayers for a “Great White Defendant.” Rev. Bacon plays the city’s media for his own aggrandisement. Sherman’s life collapses, and by the novel’s end he is a “professional defendant,” the vultures closing in “to devour at leisure the last plump white meat on the bones of capitalism.”

Bonfire carries echoes-some subtle, some less so-of earlier American classics. A hit-and-run accident proves the undoing of Jay Gatsby as of Sherman McCoy-with a crucial difference. When the dust clears in Fitzgerald’s novel, the parvenu Gatsby is dead, low-born Myrtle and her husband are dead; the aristocrat Daisy survives. In Gatsby’s America the aristocrats always sail off unscathed, regardless of the wreckage they leave in their wake. But in Bonfire the aristocrat is ruined; the parvenu (Sherman’s mistress, who drives the car as it hits the teenager) survives, even flourishes.

Not that Wolfe treats Sherman sympathetically; with rare exceptions, Wolfe treats none of his characters sympathetically: that description of the Fifth Avenue hostess is notable not only for its exactness but also for its cruelty. Wolfe’s characters are clouded by self-delusion, motivated by vanity; he does not like them and neither do we. They do not even like one another.

The layers of mutual contempt in Bonfire reach a fugue-like complexity in a scene which brings together a group of British expatriates at a watering hole. Being British, they are resolved not to pay the tab, so they look for an American to pay it. They ask Ed Fiske, a minor character, to join them, and pretend to care about his boring conversation:

The Brits hung on every word with rapt and beaming faces, as if

he were the most brilliant raconteur they had come across in the New World. They chuckled, they laughed, they repeated the tag end of his sentences, like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. Mr Ed Fiske kept talking, gaining in confidence and fluency. The drink had hit the spot. What admiring British faces all around him! How they beamed! How they appreciated the art of conversation! With casual largesse he ordered a round of drinks…

One by one the Brits slip away, sticking him with the $200 bill. The scene is incidental to the plot and very funny, but it is unsettling none the less. In miniature, it captures the author’s attitude to his creations: the Brits despise Ed for his delusions, and Wolfe despises them for despising him; but in the end he finds Ed as appalling as they do. There is something chilly at the centre of the bonfire, a lump of ice where the novel’s heart should be. Sherman himself is merely an instrument of his own vanity, so when his life collapses it is not so much a tragedy as a comeuppance.

There is one wholly admirable character in Bonfire: the old judge who tries Sherman’s case, Mike Kovitsky, embodies older, higher aspirations, but to no effect. Even he finally succumbs to Wolfe’s fatalism. Wolfe has remarked how much he admires the scene from Huckleberry Finn in which Colonel Sherburn faces down a mob which has come to lynch him. The lesson is un- mistakable: the courage of an individual, of a real man, will by right triumph over the mob. Kovitsky is such a man and at Bonfire’s climax he chooses to face down the lawless herd of hysterics gathered outside the court. But…

At that moment Kovitsky threw open both glass doors in front of him. His robes billowed out like enormous black wings… Kovitsky stopped in the doorway, arms outstretched. The moment lengthened… lengthened… The arms dropped. The billowing wings collapsed against his frail body. He turned around and walked back inside the lobby. His eyes were down, and he was muttering.

The mob rages on; and honourable men like Kovitsky find themselves powerless before the consuming bonfire. What we have here, in other words, is a profoundly pessimistic book. Its plot spins, buzzes and races along with great humour and energy, but under a Spenglerian gloom. There are remarkably few anachronisms in Bonfire, but the largest anachronism, we can note today with some relief, is Wolfe’s pessimism. After all, the economic boom of the 1980s is still humming in the 1990s; New York itself is a vastly cleaner, safer place than the city Wolfe described. There is less need to “insulate, insulate,” now than there has been in 40 years. Even the graffiti on the subway cars, so lovingly described in Bonfire, has been cleaned up. The novel’s candour about race-which created such a stir when the book came out and branded Wolfe a racist in the eyes of his more hysterical critics-is only mildly more frank than a 1997 Steven Bochco television series.

We may in part have Wolfe to thank for this. With courage and skill, he wrote the most popular novel of the decade as a declamation of where we were all heading. But we seem to have decided not to go there. The apocalypse that Bonfire pointed to has been averted. For now.
The bonfire of the vanities

Tom Wolfe

Picador, 1989, ?8.99

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