Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digest- ed,” wrote Francis Bacon. Easy for him to say. Bacon lived in pre-electric times and could nibble, munch, or take shark-like gulps of thick manuscripts, reading by candlelight without the importunate blat of the television and the seductive come-hither of the latest smash-hit movie. Today many of us have neither time nor taste for any pulp product except the certified Big Novel of the Season, though that does survive and, go figure, seems to be thriving. We use the BNS as cocktail party fodder, and even though the main topic is likely to be who do you think will play Gus in the miniseries of Lonesome Dove, at least that’s something to do with books, so leave us not complain. Still, in a fast-forward, microwaving world, a week of steaming up uncertain rivers of print is not for everyone. Always eager to please, we present this Busy Post-Yuppie’s Guide to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $19.95). May it serve as an aperitif to a feast of a novel, Wolfe’s first after two decades of brilliant, eccentric nonfiction.
Basically, what goes on in Bonfire? The plot, please.
A bond trader named Sherman McCoy is riding high as the top producer at Pierce & Pierce, the top investment house on Wall Street. At thirty-eight, McCoy thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe,” a man able to coax millions in a day from his computer terminal. McCoy believes that he is entitled to all the accouterments of a Master’s life: obscenely expensive Park Avenue pad, hot mistress, private school for daughter Campbell, etc.
Pride goeth before a fall.. .
You guessed it. The Master meets disaster when he gets pulled into the brawling ethnic jungles of New York, where few care that he went to the exclusive Buckley School. He gets involved in an accident in the terra incogita of the Bronx and, though his mistress is actually behind the wheel, is charged with hit and run. He becomes a pawn in a war between the turf lords of the city.
You mean street gangs, roving muggers?
Worse than that. Petty bureaucrats, including Abe Weiss, a desperate district attorney. He sees McCoy as the Great White Defendant whose capture will hush minority cries of racial bias and deliver Weiss to reelection. There’s also a supermacho Jewish prosecutor and a black minister-hustler who snookers a white church out of $350,000 and makes the whites feel guilty about it. Stoked by an amoral press, the bonfires are ready to blaze.
Shades of Radical Chic. But what about that bonfire idea ? Why the title of this book? Is there an echo of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair?
Glad you asked. All the major characters of the novel are motivated by vanity-not by love of duty or profession or principle or society, but by sheer, mirror-hugging love of self. Throughout, the characters preen and posture like creatures from a health club ad. They are claus-trophobically, hilariously conscious of their looks. Kramer, the Jewish prosecutor who hounds McCoy, craves a young woman on one of his juries. He constantly favors her with “a shrug of his mighty sternocleidomastoid muscles” as he makes his arguments. As McCoy’s trial opens, Kramer frets: how will the courtroom artist depict his bald spot? As for Sherman, he and his fellow vampires live by the motto Make it Now! and sneer at any sluggard making less than a half-million at age thirty. Most of the other characters in Bonfire are also into The Self.
In his nonfiction Wolfe is famous for that inimitable but often imitated style and a safecracker’s ear for dialogue, as well as the neologisms he coins in every book. Is he true to form in his fiction?
You bet. As ever, the Wolfian antennae are aquiver for those tiny nuances of language. He mimics speech better than anyone in the business. If you think he’s changed, fuhgedaboudit, as several of his New Yorkers say. The trademark style is as hyper as a hummingbird on speed; one reporter, certainly not this one, counted 2.343 exclamation points in Bonfire. As for Wolfisms, the brokers’ telephones are “electric doughnuts”; the “Primordial Shrug” is that whaddayexpect gesture a New Yorker displays when the city reveals its unliveability in some new way. Sherman’s mistress walks with a “nose-up sprocket-hipped model-girl gait.” The book’s brightest moments come when Wolfe uses language to reinforce a central theme: the vast gulfs of cultural, economic, and educational differences that yawn between New Yorkers living just a few subway stops apart. When Sherman hires a scratch-and-claw Irish lawyer named Killian for his defense, the blue-blood McCoy can barely understand him. “There you had criminal law in its basic form with all the elements,” Killian says, but McCoy hears “Theh you ed crim’nal law in its basoc fawuhm wit’allee elements.” Throughout, speech reveals and creates character. When Kramer wants to show his Irish colleagues that he too is streetwise, he deliberately uses incorrect grammar and sprinkles his speech with ain’ts. We understand that various professions also get the satiric knife in Bonfire.
Yes. One painful, vivid scene finds Sherman trying to explain to Campbell just what Daddy does all day. Since what he does is light years removed from actual production of any tangible good, he stumbles. McCoy’s wife sums it up this way: “Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that.” It’s not the happiest marriage.
What about the legal profession and the bold knights of the fourth estate?
It’s all downhill after Sherman. The DA moves heaven and earth to indict McCoy not because his “crime” is so heinous, but because he needs support from black and brown activists who see McCoy as the essence of racist colonial imperialist capitalist doggism. Meanwhile Fallow, a British jour-nalist on a Murdoch-style rag, is about to be sacked for alcoholism and incompetence when he is fed the Sherman McCoy story by a stooge for the rabble-rousing Rev. Bacon. He helps to peddle the spurious tale of the Bronx “honor student” mowed down by an arrogant McCoy. Between epic hangovers, Fallow mooches meals and cash off rich Americans.
We hate to ask this, but it sounds like Bonfire is full of that racial and ethnic strife that no longer exist in official America.
The book seethes with ethnic rivalry. Assuming New York is a microcosm of the country, Americans are not yet ready to join hands in that great homogenized shopping mall. The rainbow coalition may be among Wolfe’s fondest dreams, but to his characters it’s Greek, as in Jimmy the.
In closing, how about something a little more literary to tart up our cocktail chatter?
Gotcha covered. Memorize this quote from the Chilean poet and Marxist Pablo Neruda. He’s talking about American detective fiction, but it snugly fits Bonfire. “There is no greater denunciation [of America] than that which turns up in those detective novels about the fatigue and corruption of the politicians and the police, the influence of money in the big cities, the corruption which pops up in all parts of the North American system.”
Ouch. We know this is going to sound a bit un-modern, but are there any heroes in this navel?
Tough call. Maybe Myron Kovitsky, the hardcase judge, though we might like him less if we knew more about him. Sherman, on the other hand, grows increasingly sympathetic as his power and prestige are chipped away. His “rebirth” is fascinating.
Does the book have a happy ending?
Yes. A triumphant moment in which courage and principle rise above mob tactics, fear, and vanity.
So everything turns out all right?
No, there’s also an epilogue.