The Bonfire of the Vanities

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

With such books as THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST and THE RIGHT STUFF, Wolfe demonstrated that nonfiction can be as artful as fiction, and even more urgent. With THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, a richly textured, exuberant tale of New York, Wolfe establishes himself as the leading candidate for the title of the Balzac of contemporary America.

Abe Weiss, a cunning district attorney, refers to his turf as “the Laboratory of Human Relations,” and Wolfe’s novel depicts an urban melting pot that has become 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 varied accents of a contemporary metropolis.

He tells the story of Sherman McCoy, a blue-blooded prince of Park Avenue who can barely afford his $2.6 million apartment on a $980,000 income as a top Wall Street bond dealer. McCoy must also post bond when arrested for reckless endangerment. Lost in the South Bronx, he and someone else’s randy wife flee the scene when McCoy’s Mercedes hits a black youth. The resulting scandal is municipal theater enacted by ambitious prosecutor Larry Kramer, political demogague the Reverend Reginald Bacon, sleazy tabloid reporter Peter Fallow, and a supporting cast of hundreds.

Wolfe is attentive to the speech patterns, clothing, diet, habits, and obsessions of his motley citizens 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.” Among the set pieces in which the novel excels are an elaborate...

(The entire section is 663 words.)