Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities is a contemporary naturalist novel and his protagonist, Sherman McCoy, evokes feelings reminiscent to that of Vladimir Nabokov‘s Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Wolfe allows the dialogue and plot to speak for themselves, and while concrete evidence of his voice is hard to be found, the novel’s presentation of society, justice, and media direct us to Wolfe’s opinion.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a tremendous work of art. It truly is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It has an interesting multi-narrative plot, with so many different stories that weave together into a tight singular story. With close to two dozen major characters, multiple plot lines, and at 685 pages, it’s a testament to Wolfe that it is so easy to read. While the book is dated in the 1980s, it is a naturalist/literary realism novel, one that will stand the test of time, much like Emile Zola‘s Nana, Gustave Flaubert‘s Madame Bovary, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. And like those books, this one is a page-turner driven by realistic characters and social issues that will always be contemporary. Scenes are purposely laid out to demonstrate the differences between class, morals, and society. Without blatantly stating the problems, Wolfe indicates corruption and failure through character action and dialogue.
The major plot line is a white, married, successful Wall Street bond trader picks up his mistress from the airport in his $50,000 Mercedes. They get lost in the Bronx and they hit a black honor roll high school student who lives in the projects. They leave him and the rest of the novel is about what happened and what happens. The Bronx community reacts to the hit and run. The police and legal system react to the case. It’s like reading the greatest Law and Order episode. We get to see what leads up to the crime, the crime itself, and the justice system. We are in the police station when the suspect is being processed and we are with him while he waits outside of the court room during the arraignment. We watch him as he awaits his trial and in the courtroom. We also see the District Attorney build his case, the police that arrest McCoy, the journalist who calls attention to the crime, and the Reverend that accuses the justice system of ignoring a black youth’s wrongful death. Wolfe presents us with high society dinner parties, McCoy’s family life, and his mistress’ illegal sublet studio.
And here is where the absolute brilliance of Tom Wolfe enters. You feel sorry for Sherman McCoy, Wall Street bond trader, who lives in a $3.2 million Park Avenue apartment. You kind of want him to be ok. You don’t want him to go to jail because the inmates are cruel to him. You feel bad for him because he has become a pawn in a political game. As you’re reading, you feel bad. But then you step back, you pull yourself out of the book, and you realize he’s an ass. While McCoy is not an unreliable narrator like Humbert, he still evokes those feelings of self-loathing as you realize you are sort of on his side. When I started reading the novel I was completely against McCoy, but the more I read, the more Wolfe’s writing seeped into my mind and affected my emotional judgement.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a wonderful naturalist novel that takes you through the legal system, from crime to trial to verdict and after. The myriad of characters and plot lines are swiftly and efficiently folded together into a single story. And Tom Wolfe presents us with an unsympathetic character that he miraculously evokes sympathy for. This book is so much: wealth, poverty, race, dialect, journalism, crime, justice, family, marriage, betrayal, greed, property, Wall Street. If all these problems were to disappear, this is the book that people would study. It’s an amazing portrait of society in the 1980s and will stand the test of time, like Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Zola.