Tom Wolfe Long Fiction Analysis
Tom Wolfe’s novels are grounded in the social realism and satire of writers such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Honoré de Balzac, and they are filled with the sharp observations of class and caste characteristic of his nonfiction pieces. Wolfe has stated that he admires Balzac’s assessment of himself as “society’s secretary” and that he wants his own writing to reflect reality.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Bonfire of the Vanities is satire in its clearest and most uncompromising sense, an expression of moral nausea made bearable only by the presence of sharp, mordant humor. The novel’s title and much of its theme come from two major sources. The first is the career of the Italian reforming cleric Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), who for a brief time convinced the citizens of Florence to destroy their luxury goods in a literal bonfire of the vanities. After their initial exuberance wore off, the Florentines decided to burn Savonarola instead. The second source is Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book), which satirizes the excesses of society in early nineteenth century England.
The plot of the novel is relatively simple: Sherman McCoy, a bond trader on Wall Street and self-proclaimed“master of the universe” for his financial dealings, is indulging in an adulterous affair with Maria Ruskin, wife of a wealthy financier. One evening, as Sherman is returning Maria from the airport in his Mercedes, he goes astray and ends up in the unfamiliar and frightening confines of the Bronx. Fleeing what appears to be a bungled highway robbery attempt, Maria, who is driving, accidentally hits a young black man, Henry Lamb, with the car.
When Henry Lamb ends up with a concussion in the hospital, activist Reverend Bacon mobilizes the black community to force Bronx district attorney Abraham Weiss and his assistant Larry Kramer into action. The police find evidence that might link Sherman to the crime, and British tabloid journalist Peter Fallow writes a series of articles about the incident that further inflame tensions in the city. Sherman is indicted, and during the trial he and Maria turn against each other. Her crucial evidence is disallowed on a technicality, and Sherman’s indictment is dismissed, resulting in a near riot. In a brief, ironic epilogue cast a year later, many of the major characters have fallen, through divorce, disgrace, or defeat in reelection campaigns. Only Sherman remains, still a defendant, as well as Reverend Bacon, the manipulator of protests and protesters.
The characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities are defined by their possessions. The book is a lovingly precise catalog of clothes, shoes, furniture, and accessories, all of fine craftsmanship and artistry, but valued, sometimes worshiped, because of their cost. Additionally, the vanities are appropriately relative: Sherman McCoy’s $1.6 million apartment is juxtaposed with the $750 rent-controlled love nest that assistant district attorney Kramer takes over from Maria for his own mistress. The antics of Sherman’s supposed friends as they try to make their way in the hive of society are no less ridiculous than the efforts of Abraham Weiss to remain district attorney.
The Bonfire of the Vanities falters when it approaches the terrain and the people alien to its hero, Sherman McCoy—the Bronx and its African American population, most of them poor, many of them victimized by crime, some of them criminals themselves. Although Wolfe’s ear for speech and nuance is unrivaled, he is less certain about the other aspects of the lives of these characters, more cautious and ambivalent about entering into their minds and psyches. The Reverend Bacon is given minimal treatment, pictured as an accomplished, even sophisticated, shakedown artist skilled at piercing the armor of the white establishment, whether through guilt, fear, or power politics. It is a portrait accurate enough to be satirically truthful but so broad as to be uncomfortably close to stereotype. Roland Auburn, a black youth involved in the aborted robbery attempt, is a man who can arrange for endless deliveries of new white sneakers while imprisoned in the New York City criminal justice system. Beyond Auburn and Bacon, the black characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities are “extras” in the crowds during Reverend Bacon’s demonstrations....
(The entire section is 1809 words.)