To the Editor:
BRUCE Bawer wrote an excellent assessment of Tom Wolfe’s brilliant novel (“The Bonfire of the Vanities, 30 Years Later,” January). I do, however, have something to add: When Bonfire was published, I was a smaller version of the “master of the universe” bond salesman at Lehman Brothers. As a resident of Park Avenue, I saw some of the after-hours world that Wolfe describes. I felt then, and feel now, that Wolfe got almost everything essentially right about Wall Street and the bond business. Everything, that is, except for some crucial errors of detail. For example, Sherman McCoy was a salesman, and, contra Bonfire, salesmen cannot confirm or make a trade—ever. Only a trader makes that commitment. The salesman simply relays the trading decision, as traders don’t usually talk directly to customers. This was an important detail of the novel, and Wolfe got it wrong.
Yet Wolfe’s book shows great intuition. While he missed some of the details, he got all the important aspects of Wall Street culture and mechanics correct. The mark of the 1980s, as Tom Wolfe understood, was an explosion of debt. Our banks loaned money to Latin America, high-yield bonds were issued against commercial real estate, the government insured home loans, student loans accelerated, once improbable mega-mergers were financed by debt, and Michael Milken flourished. As James Grant wrote of the era: “Prosperity wore down the skepticism of the creditors.” Tom Wolfe recognized the excitement and the hubris.
Wight Martindale Jr.