Sunday 29 September 2013

Tom Wolfe: Bonfire of the Vanities

The recent appearance of a new novel by Tom Wolfe (you can read my post on it here) has provided me with the excuse — as if I needed one — to re-read all of his novels, starting with the first one, Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987.

I won't do a long song and dance about my immense admiration for Wolfe. You can either peruse the earlier post, or take it as read.

Bonfire of the Vanities is an extraordinary feat. In it Wolfe brings to life the utterly complacent and contemptible Sherman McCoy. Vastly wealthy, selfish, casually unfaithful to his wife, Sherman is a 'Master of the Universe' (one of many terms coined by Wolfe which would pass into common usage), a bond trader on Wall Street. 

The depiction of Sherman and the rest of the super-rich financial elite living in their insulated world and looking down with disdain on us mere mortals is, sadly, more true than ever today.

But Wolfe brings Sherman low. He drags him down into the mire with the lowest of society, stripping away from him his wealth and prestige and position. And in the process he achieves something remarkable. From despising Sherman and wanting to see him fall, we reverse our attitude, feeling huge sympathy for him and wanting to see him prevail.

Wolfe is a master novelist. And, thanks to his background as a journalist, his research is immaculate. One of his characters is a British reporter and when we're reading about him Wolfe correctly refers to a biro (instead of a ballpoint pen) and council flats (instead of housing projects).

Along with the faultless research, Wolfe also occasionally just makes stuff up — to amuse us, to amuse himself, and to trip up the unwary. Thus the reference to a fine French wine called Vieux Galouches — a name that actually means 'old boots'. 

Some dullards have misinterpreted this as Wolfe getting it wrong. But they're wrong. When Wolfe refers to cricket being played at Tottenham Park, he hasn't made an error. He's just made the name up. And it's a convincing one, too.

Wolfe's writing is constantly hilarious, as when he refers to someone's "as yet unwrung neck." His descriptions are wonderful: "a gray upholstered chair that was so sleek and close to the floor it looked like a submarine surfacing." And this knack for apt description combines wonderfully with his gift for satire. Pop videos are playing in a club: "foggy grainy videotapes... full of morose skinny boys and smokebombs." His prose is always splendidly evocative. A room is "lit by the hectic flash of the television set."

But there is more to Wolfe than his brilliant, uproarious, felicitous descriptions. His work has great depth and insight. When Sherman goes to his father for help and reveals that he's in serious trouble, the poor, tired old man who had thought life was finally sorted out and comfortable is "wearier than ever at the thought of trying to hoist the Protector's armour back onto his shoulders again, now, so far down the line."

And when Sherman tells his cold, proud, haughty wife that he's about to be arrested: "That knocked the condescending look off her face. Her shoulders dropped. She was just a little woman in a big chair."

Poor Sherman. We start off hating him, but his predicament ends up breaking our hearts. After he's had his first taste of being dragged through the living hell of the justice system in the Bronx, he stands on the steps outside the court looking up at the lovely summer sky and thinking: "The only shotgun he had was, in fact, double-barrelled. It was a big old thing. He stood on 161st Street, a block from the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx, and wondered if he could get both barrels in his mouth."

The book also offers unbearable suspense as Sherman tries to escape his nightmarish trap. And it delivers a powerful, moving conclusion.

A great novel.

(Footnote: some editions come with a substantial introduction by Wolfe in the form of a 24 page essay about the decline of the realistic novel in America. It's fascinating, stimulating stuff and you should try to find one of these copies if you can. Or, in a pinch, you can find a somewhat fuzzy PDF of the piece here — allegedly reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.)

(Image credits: I heaved a sigh of relief that I was able to find all these covers at the admirable Good Reads. The German one is particularly nice, isn't it? Perhaps worryingly, it seems that some of the good folk at Good Reads think that this Tom Wolfe is the same one who wrote Look Homeward Angel.)


  1. This sounds as if it is a fascinating novel. I would like to
    read it, although I already have a number of books to read.
    Thank you for the review.
    Best regards.

  2. I read this several years after it was a hit, relevant novel of its era. Loved it. "A Man in Full" is also quite good, but not near as good as "Bonfire".

  3. I have to confess that I love all of Wolfe's novels and re-reading them is a joy. I'll be blogging about 'A Man in Full' soon. You should also seek out 'I Am Charlotte Simmons' if you haven't read it yet.