Having been in New York a couple of weeks ago, I decided the next book on my Ten Favourite Books list that I would re-read would be The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s magnificent novel about the city. Unfortunately I can’t tell you when I first read this one because I’m now on my third copy, the first two having been lent out and never returned. (Which is one of the fastest ways to lose my friendship.)
Wolfe had long wanted to write the quintessential novel about New York, a book as sprawling and chaotic as the city itself, and after a few attempts he finally wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities. It was published in October 1987, a week before the Wall Street crash, which almost seems prophetic given the book’s subject matter.
The novel is set in the financial boom of the 1980s. Sherman McCoy is a trader on Wall Street, the most successful at his firm, and he lives a seemingly idyllic WASP existence: a million dollar salary, a Park Avenue apartment, summers in the Hamptons, a chic interior-designer wife, Judy, and an angelic daughter, Campbell, plus a sexy Southern mistress, Maria.
Sherman’s life is derailed one night when he and Maria get lost in the Bronx and accidentally get into an altercation with two young black men, running one of them over in the process. It turns out that the victim is actually an honours student from the projects, a young man who was trying to help them rather than rob them. The situation blows up with the involvement of Peter Fallow, a English journalist looking to revive his career, and Reverend Bacon, an orator and activist within the black community.
The Bonfire of the Vanities blew me away when I first read it. The sheer energy of the prose leaped off the page. Wolfe describes so many aspects of the city in fascinating obsessive detail – the excess of the Manhattan elite, the vagaries of the legal system, the British ex-pat community, the inner workings of the trading rooms on Wall Street, life in the projects – that it feels like he has succeeded in creating one of the great novels about New York.
The book is also hilarious in parts; Sherman’s first interview with the cops in his apartment is cringe-worthy, and there’s a brilliantly written scene in a restaurant where one of New York’s famed billionaires has a heart-attack and dies just as the wife of an Indonesian dictator is due to dine.
I have bought this book for numerous people as a present and most of them adored it. Unfortunately I think it is by far the best novel Wolfe has ever written and so I wouldn’t recommend any of the others. However he is a pioneer of New Journalism and so you should check out The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, both of which are brilliant.
(And never, ever, ever watch the film based on the book, starring Tom Hanks. The casting director was obviously out of his/her mind, the script captures none of the energy of the book, and it is one of the worst movie adaptations I’ve ever seen.)