22. A Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
History: The novel was originally a serial in the style of Charles Dickens' writings; it ran in 27 installments in Rolling Stone starting in 1984. The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he needed. The title is a reference to a historical event, the Bonfire of the Vanities, which took place in 1497, in Florence, Italy, when the city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola. Wolfe deliberately set out to make The Bonfire of the Vanities capture the essence of New York City in the 1980s. He began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. Among his models was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which described the society of 19th century England. Wall Street in the 1980s was newly resurgent after almost the whole of the 1970s had been bad for stocks. The excesses of Wall Street were at the forefront of the popular imagination. Beneath Wall Street's success, the city was a hot-bed of racial and cultural tension. Homelessness and crime in the city were growing. Several high-profile racial incidents polarized the city, particularly two black men who were murdered in white neighborhoods: In another episode that became a subject of much media attention, Bernhard Goetz became something of a folk-hero in the city for shooting a group of black men who tried to rob him in the subway.
Plot: The novel's events center on a hit-and-run accident that takes place in a run-down area of the Bronx. Rich socialite, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, take a wrong turn on their way home from the airport one night and find themselves the victims of an apparent car-jacking attempt on a highway entrance ramp. They manage to escape, but wind up mowing down Henry Lamb, an African-American teenager, and one of two men involved in the carjacking. Lamb makes it to the hospital, barely alive, and before he lapses into a fatal coma, he gives his mother the plate number and make of Sherman's flashy Mercedes, and tells her that the car was driven by a rich, white couple. Meanwhile, Sherman and Maria decide not to report the robbery attempt. Maria talks him out of it, because she is driving, plus they do not want their respective spouses to catch them in an affair, and Maria warns that they will lose their reputations and, quite possibly, their freedom, if they call the police. Thus, they end the evening making love in their rent-controlled love nest and congratulating each other for their narrow escape. Thus, Henry Lamb's life is sacrificed. Reverend Bacon, a black activist from Harlem, is a personal friend of Lamb's mother, and he uses his influence to pressure the DA's office into discovering the identity of the rich, white driver. Eventually, the trail brings them to Sherman. Underneath his Park Avenue facade, Sherman hides many decent qualities. Most of the other characters are satirical caricatures of corrupt politicians, journalists, and social activists; thus, despite Sherman's flaws, the reader roots for him as he seeks to evade the jaws of justice.. Caught in the middle of this high-profile, politically charged criminal case, Sherman is sacrificed to the mob. His money, marriage, job, mistress, and reputation are stripped away, and he is forced out of his safe, insulated Park Avenue world. Cast among the unwashed masses, people whom Sherman has always feared and looked down on, he gradually realizes that he is no better than anyone else. In the end, Sherman's youthful ideals begin to resurface. Nonetheless, The case remains unresolved at the end of the novel, but the author leaves Sherman on a hopeful note. Although Sherman's life is a shambles, his integrity is intact. Whatever happens to Sherman, it appears he will rebuild his life on a more meaningful foundation.
Review: This book was recommended by my Uncle Ben, who lives in NYC. And I did love this book. I immediately became engrossed in the angst of the main character, the father and husband and stock broker. I have always enjoyed reading Tom Wolfe. I think he is wonderful.
Opening Line: “And then say what? Say, “forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop – Chuck was here?”
Closing Line: “The little band beat a retreat down the marble halls.”
Quotes: “A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.”
“On Wall Street he and a few others - how many? - three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? - had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe.”