The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe

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The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a novel by Tom Wolfe in which Sherman McCoy must deal with the fallout of a hit-and-run car accident that results in the death of Harold Lamb.

  • Wealthy investment banker Sherman McCoy and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, are the perpetrators of a hit-and-run car accident in which Harold Lamb is gravely injured.
  • Peter Fallow, an alcoholic journalist, and Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunistic preacher, hype up the case after Lamb identifies McCoy.
  • McCoy is put on trial for manslaughter after Lamb dies. Ruskin, despite being the one driving at the time, refuses to admit her own guilt.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities provides an interesting contrast to Wolfe’s earlier work. It is a huge, sprawling novel that runs to more than 650 pages, yet it reveals the same fascination with wealth, power, and status that dominated The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first book. In the novel, which was a long time in the making, Wolfe skillfully introduces a large and diverse cast of characters representing many levels of New York society while setting multiple, intersecting plots in motion. It begins as a meticulously constructed work. It is entertaining as satire and fascinating because of the way it weaves multiple satiric sketches into a unified but cumbersome plot that gains momentum like a runaway train. When it finally grinds to a halt, it seems to have run out of steam, almost dying of exhaustion.

The plot is so densely textured that it resists easy summary. The main plot follows the fortunes of Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old, Yale-educated bond dealer on Wall Street who considers himself a “Master of the Universe.” He lives in the “right” neighborhood, in a tenth-floor duplex on Park Avenue. He has a perfect wife and child, as well as a Mercedes and a mistress. The latter two possessions serve to bring about his ultimate downfall and disgrace.

Maria, his mistress, is married to a very wealthy husband. She is a well-traveled, ill-bred, faithless cracker bimbo. Maria spends a week in Italy, and Sherman agrees to meet her return flight at Kennedy Airport. Driving back to Manhattan, Sherman makes a wrong turn and ends up in the South Bronx. He gets lost in the land of the have-nots, and he and Maria end up in a blocked cul-de-sac. Getting out of his Mercedes to remove an obstacle, he notices two approaching black youths, one of whom offers help. Believing they are “setting him up,” Sherman scuffles with them. In a state of panic, he then runs for the car to effect a getaway. Maria, who is now driving, is also in a state of panic. She crashes the car into the boys, who have retaliated to Sherman’s attack. One of them, Henry Lamb, suffers a concussion and lapses into a coma. The muckraking press describes Lamb as an “honor student” and screams for racial justice.

Eventually Sherman will find himself charged with hit-and-run manslaughter, though, realistically, the wheels of justice turn slowly. At first, all that is known is that the boy was hit by a Mercedes registered in New York. The Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunist who chairs the “Harlem-based All Peoples’s Solidarity” movement, makes the most of the incident’s political implications.

The exploitive press, represented by a sleazy alcoholic British tabloid hack named Peter Fallow, thrives on the issue. Abe Weiss, a Jewish district attorney who is up for reelection, and his deputy, Lawrence Kramer, have a political stake in bringing Sherman to justice. Wolfe follows these and other characters through the protracted investigation, while Sherman sweats. It was his Mercedes, and he knows that Maria cannot be trusted to support him or even tell the truth about what happened. In the end, Sherman loses everything—his wife and child, his job, his Park Avenue apartment, his money, his power, and his status.

The novel ends in an epilogue in the form of a feature in The New York Times thirteen months after the accident; it informs the reader that Henry Lamb died and Sherman was arraigned for manslaughter. Bronx District Attorney Richard A. Weiss gets reelected as a result of his “tenacious prosecution.” Albert Vogel, a radical-chic lawyer representing the victim,...

(This entire section contains 1079 words.)

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wins a $12 million settlement against Sherman. The sleazy Peter Fallow wins a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the affair. In short, all the corrupt characters come out winners.

Sherman, who is technically innocent, gains dignity and human dimension through his tribulations, once his career and his ego have been demolished; the only other potentially decent character, Thomas Killian, Sherman’s defense attorney, also finds himself the target of litigation and on the skids financially. Lisa Grunwald, profiling Wolfe for Esquire, argued that the writer is more significant as a storyteller than as a social critic, but this is an arguable conclusion if one measures the achievement of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe sets a complicated plot in motion and sustains a heavily textured narrative for hundreds of pages, but the same skill and brilliance that is amply in evidence at the beginning is not sustained at the conclusion, which seems rushed, forced, and curiously flat. It is a well-designed first novel, but a truly outstanding storyteller might have provided a more effective conclusion.

Supremely self-confident, Wolfe sees himself as a writer of realist fiction and has dared to compare himself with novelists Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Charles Dickens. As a latter-day naturalist, he may be able to justify this claim to an extent, but the comparison with Dickens is questionable. Dickens could be a master of sentiment, but Wolfe’s flair for satire does not allow for sentiment in this epic tale of greed, vanity, and folly in contemporary New York. Dickens could draw characters that touched the hearts of his readers, but it is difficult to find characters in Wolfe’s novel who are sympathetic or even likable; his characters are consistently deeply flawed.

Rather than Dickens, Wolfe is closer in tone and spirit to Henry Fielding, whom he might begin to rival as a satirist. Even Fielding, however, was able to create the formidable Parson Adams—flawed, perhaps, by vanity, but essentially an honorable and honest man—in the novel Joseph Andrews (1742). There is no character of his dimension of humanity in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The novel quickly became a best seller and was hugely successful. It was not without its critics, however. Reviewing Wolfe’s novel for The Nation, John Leonard wrote that “only Tom Wolfe could descend into the sewers of our criminal justice system and find for his hero a white victim in a city where Bernie Goetz gets six months [for shooting a black youth he thought was threatening him in the New York subway]. . . . Only Wolfe could want to be our Balzac and yet not notice the real-estate hucksters and the homeless.” Nevertheless, whatever its limitations, The Bonfire of the Vanities is an intricately plotted work of social observation, and as Wolfe’s first foray into full-length fiction, it is an impressive achievement.