The Bonfire of the Vanities (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
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...
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
Wolfe tells his story in the same style that characterizes his new journalism. Just as he appropriated fictional techniques for nonfiction, he freely uses nonfictional techniques in fiction. The latter, however, is nothing new. Wolfe laments the disappearance of novels, such as those by Dickens, Thackerey, Balzac, and Zola, alive with convincing precision that revealed how people in great cities lived during a particular age. Infused with immensely realistic detail, The Bonfire of the Vanities is as credible in describing the holding pens in the Bronx as it is in chronicling a glamorous dinner party on the Upper East Side. In addition, Wolfe effectively uses language to express not only a character's status but personality as well. Unlike most of his nonfictional work, Wolfe employs omniscient narration that allows him to develop a variety of characters and freely comment on their motivations, inner thoughts, and backgrounds.
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The Bonfire of the Vanities was originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984-1985, but the final novel varies dramatically from the serialization. In the earlier version, Sherman, a largely sympathetic character often referred to as "the Great Observer," was a writer rather than an ego-maniacal bond trader. That transformation of Sherman's character is the crucial difference between the serialization and the published novel: many of the details of the serialized Sherman presented him as a victim, but most of his good intentions are subdued if not altogether lost in the published novel. Written to meet deadlines, the serialization lacks the balance, fluidity, and polish of the published novel.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is perhaps most closely related to Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) as both are concerned with social status and racial tensions. Freed from the constraints of factual accounts, Wolfe's novel relentlessly pursues the hypocrisy, irony, and self-absorption that exists in every strata of society.
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The Bonfire of the Vanities was adapted for a film, released in the winter of 1990, directed by Brian DePalma, best known for his Hitchcock homages (such as Obsession) and violent crime epics like Scarface and The Untouchables. Tom Hanks plays Sherman McCoy, with a supporting cast that includes Bruce Willis as Larry Kramer, Melanie Griffith as Maria Ruskin, Morgan Freeman, F. Murray Abraham, Kim Cattrall, and Saul Rubinek. The playwright Michael Cristofer wrote the screenplay from Wolfe's novel.
The filming itself aroused considerable controversy. Under pressure from community groups that vehemently objected to the negative way in which the Bronx is depicted in Wolfe's novel, filmmakers agreed to photograph footage showing more positive features of the Bronx: its zoo and botanical gardens, for example.
Yet another controversy arose when Wolfe appeared with Spike Lee, the author and director of Do the Right Thing, on a panel sponsored by the CORO Foundation in New York City in May 1990. Lee charged that the screenplay of The Bonfire of the Vanities drastically altered the end of Wolfe's novel so that Henry Lamb did not die, but instead simply walked out of the hospital one day. Wolfe responded by emphasizing that since he had not authored the screenplay, he had no knowledge of or control over such a change. There are also considerable differences between Wolfe's story and the film, such as Sherman's...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Black, George. “The Far-Right Stuff.” The New Statesman 115 (February 12, 1988): 31. An extremely negative review of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Black accuses Wolfe of distorting the truth about the underprivileged residents of the Bronx. He calls the book “a set piece for cartoon characters.”
Shomette, Doug, ed. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. A collection of essays, both positive and negative, on books published by Wolfe up to 1990. This excellent reference source contains incisive essays on The Bonfire of the Vanities. Also contains a chronology of important events in Wolfe’s life and a generous bibliography.
Thompson, James. “The Phoenix and the Bonfire’: The Death and Transformation of Sherman McCoy.” World and I 8 (January, 1993): 526-539. Thompson explores the relationship between religion and morality in the life of Sherman McCoy. Although Thompson is careful to point out that Sherman’s experiences should not be viewed as a mirror of Wolfe’s, he does draw parallels between Sherman’s Anglican affiliation and Wolfe’s childhood exposure to the Episcopal Church.
Vigilante, Richard. “The Truth About Tom Wolfe.” The National Review 39 (December 18, 1987): 46-48. An enthusiastic review of The Bonfire of the...
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