The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
Category: Fiction / General
730 pages; ISBN: 0-330-30573-5
Rating: 7/10 (Ratings explained)
Tom Wolfe's epic tale of the downfall of a yuppie in New York was THE must-read novel of the late 80s.Tarnished by a famously dreadful film adaptation and outgunned as satire by the savagery of "American Psycho" is it still worth reading ?
The story is concerned with an accident in which a young black man is knocked down by a car in The Bronx.The car is owned by Sherman MCoy a bond trader who has taken a wrong turning while out with his mistress.Because the "crime" is white on black the case becomes a political football and Sherman sees his world slowly disintegrate.
There is a large supporting cast of mostly unattractive characters - Sherman's awful social-climbing wife Judy and equally unappealing hard-as-nails mistress Maria,a freeloading English journalist, a lecherous assistant DA and his boss who won't let justice get in the way of his political ambitions and an unscrupulous black churchman-cum-extortionist.
It has to be said that BOTV is a very long book and Wolfe would be a literary genius if every page were equally absorbing.There are drab passages where the plot works itself out in too mechanical a fashion, the legal machinations drag on too long and the chaotic courtroom climax is unsatisfactory (one can partly excuse Hollywood for wanting to change it).However there are scenes where Wolfe's writing is absolutely brilliant in nailing down the shallow hypocrisy of Manhattan society.The two parties Sherman attends, one before his arrest where everyone ignores him and one after when he is feted as a celebrity are masterpieces of barbed observation and razor-sharp wit.The same goes for the restaurant scene where the husband of Sherman's mistress dies at an inconvenient moment.There's also a surprisingly touching scene between Sherman and his father before the former's court appearance where Wolfe eases off the irony and beautifully captures the inevitable diminution of influence as one gets old.
Not the greatest novel in the world then but it does contain enough ideas and fascinating social history to keep you absorbed.