Commentary Magazine


The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

The Fire This Time

The Bonfire of the Vanities.
by Tom Wolfe.
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 659 pp. $19.95.

What happens when one of the kings of the New Journalism, who throughout his career has employed fictional techniques in his reportage, decides to write a novel? In Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities we have an answer to that question. A journalist first and last, Wolfe has scorned the solipsistic assumptions of most of his American fiction-writing contemporaries and—with etymological warrant—has grounded his novel in the news (les nouvelles).

Wolfe’s dramatization of the tensions of life in New York City in the 1980’s is, to a degree, excruciatingly believable. His notations of different patterns of speech and habits of dress, of the latest fashions in food and interior decoration, and of the sorts of names favored by rock bands (the Pus Casserole) and political protest groups (the Gay Fist Strike Force) are hilariously acute. His evocations of a wide variety of scenes, from the asphalt, concrete, and cinders strewn across the hills and dales of the southeast Bronx in a ghastly yellow gloaming to the bond-trading room of the investment firm of Pierce & Pierce on lower Wall Street, where young Ivy Leaguers roar like wild animals and by 8:30 A.M. have dark half-moons under their armpits, likewise possess an indisputable authenticity.

The novel’s panoramic reach considerably exceeds its grasp, however. Not only are the characters types, rather than individuals, but they do not compare in interest with the real people Wolfe has etched in acid in his essays. Owing to the author’s lack of literary inventiveness, many of the episodes are boringly predictable, and, as Michael Dolan has demonstrated in a searching review in the Washington, D.C., City Paper, a number of colorful phrases in the book have been cannibalized from Wolfe’s earlier writings. Worse than all these disappointments, though, are the plot’s departures from plausibility at certain critical junctures.

Such flights of fancy would be forgivable if the novel were simply a satire. But a Dreiserian terror drenches the best chapters in this novel, and it constitutes an even stronger sign than documentary gravity of Wolfe’s contradictory ambitions. For all of his desire to push facts to their comic extremes, the author of The Right Stuff (Wolfe’s book about the test pilots who form the backbone of America’s space-flight program) also wants us to accept The Bonfire as a naturalistic account—as a chronicle, in the words of the flap copy on the dust jacket, of “the way we live in America.”

In the wild and whirling prologue we are brought face to face with urban chaos. At a public meeting in Harlem, the mayor of New York, unnamed but revealingly given to Kochian locutions (“Okay? I’ll give you the actual figures. Okay?”), is being shouted down with anti-Semitic epithets (“Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Hymie!”) by the followers of a manipulative black religionist and street socialist known as Reverend Bacon. The TV crews in attendance, their cameras coming out of their heads like horns, are diabolically delighted by the spectacle, as the mental processes of the mayor immediately recognize: “They’re eating it up! They’re here for the brawl! . . . They’re cowards! Parasites! The lice of public life!”

Despite the accents of self-pity, the mayor is speaking for Wolfe. A bitter view of the tyranny of journalism over our right to privacy as well as our politics, and of the affluence and celebrity attainable by untalented hacks, is powerfully sustained to the end of The Bonfire. The life of Wolfe’s thirty-eight-year-old protagonist, the imperious but hardly evil Sherman McCoy, becomes a hell as a result of the media’s vile eagerness to destroy respectable reputations, while the sleaziest character in the book, an alcoholic, meal-cadging Englishman, Peter Fallow, who despite his encyclopedic ignorance of the United States is a reporter for a New York tabloid owned by the fabulously wealthy Sir Gerald Steiner, wins not only a Pulitzer Prize for the revelations about McCoy passed to him by others, but the hand of Sir Gerald’s daughter as well.

If, however, the harassed mayor of New York knows how he feels about those TV crews, his assessment of his black hecklers wanders between two worlds. On the one hand, he sees them as the curling lip of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic tidal wave of the disadvantaged, in which the varied elements of the city’s historic stability are fated to drown if they have not done so already. “Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers!” the mayor internally soliloquizes as the blacks in the audience in front of him begin to jump up and down and shake their fists and scream:

It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! . . . You poor fatties! You marshmallows! Hens! Cows! You wait’ll you have a Reverend Bacon for a mayor, and a City Council and a Board of Estimate with a bunch of Reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other!

Yet in the very midst of imagining the day when Reverend Bacon and company will show their faces at 60 Wall and Number One Chase Manhattan Plaza to dust out the safe-deposit boxes, the mayor suddenly repudiates his entire prophecy as pathological. “Completely crazy, these things roaring through his head! Absolutely paranoid! Nobody’s going to elect Bacon to anything. Nobody’s going to march downtown.” What are the second thoughts that bring the mayor to his senses? The prologue fails to furnish an answer to this question, and the omission is significant. For His Honor’s feverish initial judgment of New York’s future is destined to be elaborated upon in the novel proper.

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Even though the story of Sherman McCoy is unsatisfyingly fantastic in the last analysis, it begins realistically enough—indeed, quite brilliantly so. With his income of a million dollars a year, a fourteen-room apartment on Park Avenue, a fashionably thin wife who dabbles in interior decorating, a beautiful six-year-old daughter, and a long-legged, sprocket-hipped young mistress named Maria, McCoy carries his “Yale chin” at a cocky angle and thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe”—but not for long. In the twilight of a late-summer day, as he is bringing Maria and her multitudinous luggage back from Kennedy Airport in his $48,000 Mercedes sports roadster, he misses the ramp for Manhattan on the Triborough Bridge, turns off instead at East 138th, and promptly gets lost in the darkest Bronx. The further he proceeds, the more alarming the street scenes become.

Among the emotions which most Americans share but hesitate to acknowledge in public discourse is the fear of losing one’s way in a city at night and ending up in a totally unfamiliar slum neighborhood. If there is anything about The Bonfire that an amateur sociologist can be sure of, as he contemplates its impressive sales, it is that its readers unanimously identify with the situation of McCoy and Maria in the roadster. The onomatopoeic interpolations and parenthetical ejaculations that have long been Wolfe’s stylistic signature serve him superbly well as he tracks the curve of McCoy’s and Maria’s feelings from a vague abysmal uneasiness to a barely controlled panic. Finally, Maria spots a ramp that promises to lead them back to safety, except that the incline is blocked by an old tire. McCoy gets out of the car, picks up the tire, and sees two black men—both of them young, one of them heavily muscled and big—coming toward him.

At which point there ensues a stunning sequence of actions and reactions culminating in unintended homicidal violence. As a lesson in deterministic irony, the sequence bears comparison with the scene in the rowboat on Big Bittern Lake in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, wherein Clyde Griffiths’s pregnant girlfriend, Roberta Alden, whom Clyde desperately wants to get rid of but can’t bring himself, in the moment of truth, to kill, accidentally falls in the water and drowns, while Clyde does nothing to save her. Breathing in huge gulps “as if she were drowning,” Maria in The Bonfire clambers behind the wheel of the Mercedes and Sherman jumps in beside her; she slams the car into first gear as he yells, “Look out!”

The big one was coming toward the car. He had the tire up over his head. Maria squealed the car forward, right at him. He lurched out of the way . . . a blur . . . a terrific jolt. . . . The tire hit the windshield and bounced off, without breaking the glass. . . . The Krauts! . . . Maria cut the wheel to the left, to keep from hitting the cans. . . . The skinny one standing right there. The rear end fishtailed . . . thok! . . . The skinny boy was no longer standing. . . . Maria fought the steering wheel. . . . A clear shot between the guardrail and the trash cans. . . . She floored it. . . . A furious squeal. . . . The Mercedes shot up the ramp. . . .

There but for the grace of God go we. McCoy and Maria’s crime of hit-and-run is an event we can so fully believe in that it’s difficult to imagine we would have acted differently.

But from the moment the lovers reach the nest she maintains in Manhattan—for Maria, too, is married and must conduct her romances clandestinely—and McCoy allows her to talk him out of his automatic impulse to report what happened to the police, the story begins to place a strain on our credulity. In Dreiser’s novels, one never doubts that individual lives are the playthings of large forces. But even though there is a Dreiserian quality in the ensuing account of McCoy’s humiliation, as he is stripped of every shred of his honor and dignity and loses his touch as a bond trader as well, Wolfe fails to persuade us of his helplessness in withstanding the accusation that is leveled at him, rather than at Maria, on the theory that he was driving the car at the time of the accident. For the fictional consequence of Wolfe’s abiding interest in Manhattan chic is that he has focused his novel not on a young fellow of humble beginnings like Clyde Griffiths, or on a mere saloon manager like Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, but on a man whose father is the leonine senior partner, now retired, of one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, and who is himself well-educated, supremely self-confident, and rich.

In addition to asking us to accept the idea that such a man would be so stupid as not to call the police, no matter what the cost in marital embarrassment, Wolfe advances an utterly unconvincing explanation of McCoy’s amazing decision not to check with his lawyer immediately as to whether lying low and doing nothing is indeed an advisable course. Things get even worse—for the reader who is feeling cheated, that is—when two detectives finally come to McCoy’s home to question him. Because the detectives have nothing more to go on than the make of the car involved in the accident and a fragment of its license-plate number, all that McCoy has to do to thwart his questioners is to behave with his usual hauteur. In newspaper interviews Wolfe has been quoted as saying that he personally loves the characters in The Bonfire—but he doesn’t love McCoy sufficiently to refrain from violating his character in order to ensnare him in the toils of the law. Guilt is veritably emblazoned upon the bond trader’s every reply to the officers, so that they come away from his awesome apartment agog at their dumb luck in having discovered the needle in the haystack.

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Near the conclusion of the book, McCoy estimates that at his second trial (the first having ended in a hung jury) he might be put away for “8? to 25.” Acquittal or a sentence of community service has right along, however, been the genuine legal probability, which all the stylistic razzmatazz and socko subplot developments in the author’s arsenal of literary distractions do not succeed in concealing. Indeed, so fraught with saving considerations for the defendant is the criminal evidence against McCoy that in addition to making his pessimism seem mysterious, it casts a deep shadow of doubt upon the decision of the Bronx District Attorney, Abe Weiss, to go after McCoy hammer and tongs. Weiss, to be sure, is facing a close race for reelection, and he thinks that a “Great White Defendant” will be a means of placating his black constitutents’ alleged outrage about the fact that, of the 40,000 people arrested annually in the Bronx, the overwhelming majority are blacks and Latins. Does the McCoy case, however, like the Griffiths case in An American Tragedy, constitute a cause with which a district attorney can really win friends and influence people? The Bonfire not only affirms that it does, but further asserts that the black population of the Bronx, and of the other boroughs as well, is on the verge of a massive social uprising.

Reverend Bacon, as we might expect, is fond of advancing this view of the black temper, especially when white liberals show signs of disappointment in him. Thus when Edward Fiske III, community outreach director of the Episcopal diocese of New York, at the ankles of whose intellectual liberalism a thousand little things about blacks are already snapping, discovers to his vast distress that the board of trustees of Bacon’s Little Shepherd Day Care Center is composed of four black men with criminal records and three others on parole from prison, he journeys up to Harlem and attempts to retrieve the diocese’s donation to the center of $350,000. For his pains, the appalled Episcopalian is treated to a warning of doomsday a-coming. “I’m the conservative, whether you know it or not,” Bacon instructs him. “You don’t know who’s out there on those wild and hungry streets. I am your prudent broker on Judgment Day. Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, they’re gonna blow, and on that day, how grateful you will be for your prudent broker.” Being a satirist, Wolfe of course is inviting us to laugh at Bacon’s threatening reply to the feckless Fiske. Yet he also takes—or pretends to take—this kind of talk seriously, as he makes clear in his account of the conspicuous-consumption dinner party staged by a parvenu couple named Bavardage in their Fifth Avenue apartment.

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Dinner parties are more easily brought off by hostesses in real life than by novelists in fiction. The handful of successes in American literature, of which the most notable takes place in William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lap-ham, has definitely not been augmented by the evening at the Bavardages’. As usual, Wolfe is a keen-eyed observer of the ladies’ dresses, the table decorations, and the food, yet despite their up-to-the-minute accuracy his observations blur together with the Thackerayan names he has bestowed on some of the guests and the bits of pretentious conversation he records into an altogether unremarkable rendering of a vanity fair, while Wolfe’s Waugh-like purpose of casting an aura of decadence over the evening is put to rout by his inability to come up with examples of it.

With the defeat of that larger purpose, the vision of the looming demise of New York’s privileged classes that the homosexual English poet Aubrey Buffing sets before the Bavardages and their guests seems even more gratuitous than it might otherwise have been. Even though Buffing is rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize, it is not from his own work that he fashions his apocalyptic allegory, but from Edgar Allan Poe’s. In his last years, the poet reminds his audience, Poe lived just north of here, in a part of New York called the Bronx. He was a drunk, of course, Buffing goes on to say, and perhaps a psychotic, but with the madness of prophetic vision he once wrote a story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” that “tells all we need to know about the moment we live in now.”

A mysterious plague, called the Red Death, is ravaging the land. Prince Prospero—Prince Prospero, Buffing emphasizes—assembles all the best people in his castle, in which he has stored a two-year supply of food and drink, and then shuts the gates against the outside world—“against the virulence of all lesser souls,” as Buffing glosses the story—and commences a masked ball that he intends to keep going in all seven of the castle’s salons until the plague has burned itself out beyond the walls. One night, however, a guest appears dressed as death. Prospero is filled with a murderous rage by this unwanted apparition, and pursues him into a room appointed entirely in black. But just as he is about to strike at the guest’s ghastly shroud, the Prince falls down dead. For the plague has entered the house of Prospero:

Now, the exquisite part of the story [says Buffing] is that somehow the guests have known all along what awaits them in this room, and yet they are drawn irresistibly toward it, because the excitement is so intense and the pleasure is so unbridled and the gowns and the food and the drink and the flesh are so sumptuous—and that is all they have. Families, homes, children, the great chain of being, the eternal tide of chromosomes mean nothing to them any longer. They are bound together, and they whirl about one another, endlessly, particles in a doomed atom—and what else could the Red Death be but some sort of final stimulation, the ne plus ultra?

The woebegone Sherman McCoy has been among Buffing’s auditors, and the personal message of doom he hears in the poet’s words is the message that Tom Wolfe, who prefers clarity to subtlety, wants to make sure we catch as well. “That mannered, ghostly English voice had been the voice of an oracle. Aubrey Buffing had been speaking straight to him, as if he were a medium dispatched by God Himself. Edgar Allan Poe!—Poe!—the ruin of the dissolute!—in the Bronx—the Bronx! The meaningless whirl, the unbridled flesh, the obliteration of home and hearth!—and waiting in the last room, the Red Death.” The only exegetical connection that McCoy (speaking here for Wolfe) refrains from spoon-feeding to us is that the skinny black youth whose coma and eventual death derive from a collision with the fishtailing rear end of a Mercedes had grown up in a housing development in the Bronx called the Edgar Allan Poe projects.

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, the imminence of a revolutionary situation is allegorically insisted on. The prophecy is neither validated nor vindicated, however, by the story the novel tells. The result is that one comes away from the book feeling that Wolfe’s apocalypticism has simply been temporarily assumed, in order to lend portentousness to his tale, and that Wolfe really believes, with the mayor of New York, that this kind of thinking is “completely crazy, . . . absolutely paranoid!”

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