Published on March 27th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
‘Wealth, Waste & Wall Street’ – Review of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’
New York, 1987, the capital of the world. Wall Street is the pinnacle of finance in a decade of wealth and affluence. Materialism, consumerism and capitalism share a bed of self-indulgence with the values of the yuppies, Wasps and privileged Americans of the era.
Sherman McCoy is a 38 year old successful bonds trader at Pierce & Pierce on Wall Street.He has it all, the elegant and fashionable wife, the decadent car and the multi-million dollar luxury apartment on Park Avenue. Until one fateful day that changes his life forever.
In a spiral of deceit, infidelity and tragedy, Sherman’s world of excess is shattered. The Bonfire of the Vanities is an epic that follows the downfall of the greatest and the entitled.
The title of the book comes from the burning of materials purported to be sinful, the most notable is a particular event in 1497 with the burning of books and art at a Mardi Gras festival. Generally a religious practice the novel uses this as an allegory for the outline of the plot.
I went into this book thinking it was Vanity Fair, but it’s not far off the mark, as it was conceived with the intent of chronicling the then modern America as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair did for England back in the mid 1800’s. Also there’s “vanity” in the title. Written by Tom Wolfe, it originally started out as a serialised work in Rolling Stone, but after extensive edits was published in 1987 as a complete novel at a lengthy 720 pages, it was critically acclaimed and a huge success and was soon made into what looks like a pretty sparse movie by Brian de Palma in 1990. This didn’t meet the same praise and was panned, probably due to high expectations due to the director’s previous work.
First and foremost Bonfire is a satire. A dry and cynical satire and a cautionary tale of not only the excesses and money of the 80’s but also all the flavours of hyperactive greed that this age seemed to spawn.
Very much an American Psycho for grown-ups, which appears to have been inspired by The Bonfire of the Vanities, even down to Patrick Bateman working in the same fictional company as McCoy, Pierce & Pierce. American Psycho was written by Bret Easton Ellis 4 years later in 1991.
The story is told in a third-person perspective and follows multiple characters who are tangentially connected to the main story arc of a crime that has taken place. The most important of these sub characters is Larry Kramer, a Jewish Prosecutor handling the case and excited about what looks to be the highlight of his career, he is a man whose self-image is important despite how little people seem to care considering his position in society. His family life seems of little importance to him and this fact appears to be completely unbeknownst to them. He foolishly pursues a young woman who is a member of the jury of one of his cases.
Then the cultural flavour comes from Peter Fallow, an English journalist who has a drink and money problem and gets a lucky break when the case falls into his lap. He represents the other side of the privileged white, the skeptic and the modern epithet for the jaded Englishman, the people who invented these societal pressures. Fallow has no respect for himself and instead lives to ruin others lives and attempt to lower them, rather than to rise above them himself.
Finally there is the “protagonist”, Sherman whose drive into the Bronx form the main drive of the plot and his character offers the most insight into the key focus of the book, the unattainable and delectable lives of the Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and how they are the quintessence of greed and ignorance. He is constantly followed by the shadows of his father and the heights expected of him.
The stark depiction of the bond sales room and the Wall Street etiquette is juxtaposed against the lifestyles and jobs of the other characters in the book. McCoy lives a life already risen to its peak, his maintenance of his social conduct and work comes as second nature. The struggle for power is not as present in McCoy’s life, however he himself is not particularly powerful in his world, not like how he thinks he is, naming himself as one of the “Masters of the Universe”.
His handle on people and systems external to his world are completely non-existent and he is one of the only characters to consistently exude powerlessness in the latter part of the book.
I don’t want to talk too much about all the clearly obvious themes that this book covers like commercialism, greed, racism and morality. Instead I thought it would be interesting to look at how Kafka-esque the whole thing is.
Kafka wrote The Trial, a surreal novel about a man who is undergoing a trial for a completely unknown crime that becomes increasingly absurd as the book winds on. It’s full of semantics and oddities like an Alice in Wonderland take on the judicial system, getting stuck in endless red tape.
In Bonfire, McCoy is left with no grasp on this world, all he occupied has gone. His lawyer, Killian dances between genuinely helping to fanciful flights of observation on the criminal cases around him. Everything is a game – and a system. Killian sees the case as a challenge but at the same time is incredibly de-motivated by red tape and often succumbs to illogical thinking. Being that he is Sherman’s final hope, this leaves Sherman in complete despair or high hopes, all over nothing.
The final chapter is the most Kafka-esque part, but I don’t wish to spoil anything. There appears to be no normal kind of redemption, only a solution of sorts.
One of the most lavishly detailed and exciting almanacs for a generation. Its scrutiny is uncanny and misanthropic and couldn’t feel more at home on modern shelves. A recommended read, but do have a bar of chocolate nearby if things get too depressing.