In 1972, Tom Wolfe was hailing a movement that “would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” What he championed as “the New Journalism” was an attempt to deploy the stylistic resources of fiction in the service of recording actualities. Wolfe later collected works of such writers as Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson into an influential anthology called The New Journalism (1973). As much as anyone else, Wolfe himself, in such tours de force of observation and articulation as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), and The Right Stuff (1979), was demonstrating that nonfiction can be as artful as fiction, and even more urgent.
The New Journalism did not, however, quite wipe out the novel as literature’s main event. Evidence of that appears in the form of The Bonfire of the Vanities, a richly textured, exuberant tale of New York that is the first novel that Tom Wolfe has published. A foolish consistency need not hobble major authors. In one big book, Wolfe establishes himself as the leading candidate for the title of the Balzac of contemporary America.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old blue-blooded prince of Park Avenue who can barely afford his $2.6 million apartment and his $1,800 British suits on his $980,000 income as the top bond trader at Pierce & Pierce, a Wall Street investment bank. McCoy must also post bond when he is arrested for reckless endangerment. Lost in the South Bronx, he and someone else’s randy wife, Maria Ruskin, flee the scene when his Mercedes hits a black youth. The resulting scandal is urban theater whose dramatis personae include a freeloading alcoholic writer for a sleazy local tabloid, a cynical black demagogue, an anxious, love-starved prosecutor, and a supporting cast of hundreds. Sherman McCoy’s life becomes the stage for every raw conflicting ambition in a turbulent city where opportunity knocks—often ruthlessly.
Canny Abe Weiss, eager to be reelected district attorney from a borough that is now 70 percent black and Latino, refers to the Bronx as “the Laboratory of Human Relations.” The New York City that Wolfe depicts might pride itself on being a melting pot, but the contents are an immiscible stew of rival classes and ethnic groups. A social satirist and student of the woeful human comedy, Wolfe brings a keen ear to the motley accents of a contemporary metropolis. He is attentive to the speech patterns, clothing, diet, habits, and obsessions of the disparate denizens of what McCoy considers “the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.“
McCoy is intent on rearing his six-year-old daughter Campbell within the shelter of “the Best School, the Best Girls, the Best Families, the Best Section of the capital of the Western world in the late twentieth century.” Yet Wolfe provides a convincing portrait not only of life at the top, but of existence at the bottom and in the middle of the social hierarchy as well. In recounting the fatuous fall of Sherman McCoy, The Bonfire of the Vanities is an exuberant and poignant examination of the fragility of fortune. It mocks the temptation to define identity by the very social coordinates that this novel is so adept at rendering. “Your self,” says McCoy to his street-smart Irish...
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