The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities



The Pequod Review:

Tom Wolfe reached new heights as a writer with The Bonfire of the Vanities, a superb work of fiction that combines his electric prose with a rich and memorable satire of 1980s Manhattan. The book is primarily the story of Sherman McCoy, a white, vain, and very rich bond trader whose world implodes when he and his mistress take a wrong turn into the South Bronx and seriously injure an African American teenager in a hit-and-run. The story blows up publicly, as the police and tabloids begin an intensive search for the Mercedes-owning perpetrator.

Wolfe’s novel is savage as it explores a range of New York City characters, most of whom are as cynical and opportunistic as McCoy: Peter Fallow, the alcoholic reporter for City Light who not only breaks the story but amplifies it through subtle embellishments; Abe Weiss, the Jewish Bronx D.A. who hopes to leverage the case to win his next election; and Reverend Reginald Bacon, a Harlem political leader who seeks to rile up the public so that he can continue to maintain his high profile. Virtually nobody comes off looking good. But what really gives the book its power is the way Wolfe uses these characters to so vividly captures a specific time and place in American history — 1980s New York City, during a period of enormous economic inequality, racial tension, and political and journalistic cynicism. If the novel has a flaw, it’s that it is too exaggerated, and too superficially of-the-moment to make it a truly lasting novel. But it’s still great fun and arguably the best work of Wolfe’s distinguished career.