Tom Wolfe Long Fiction Analysis

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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,...

(This entire section contains 1809 words.)

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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 inThe Bonfire of the Vanities are “extras” in the crowds during Reverend Bacon’s demonstrations.

Still, the novel pulsates with the energy, vigor, and vulgarisms of New York City in the latter half of the twentieth century. Sherman McCoy and his fellow characters may not be up to anything essentially worthwhile in the long-range scheme of things (always a consideration of the satirist), and they are certainly deeply flawed human beings, but they are as destructive as the followers of Savonarola and as active as the puppets Thackeray created.

A Man in Full

An acidly etched survey of the influences of race and wealth, caste, and class on life in the new South, A Man in Full is set in the South’s unofficial capital, Atlanta, Georgia. This is the city of Charlie Croker, who came roaring out of southwestern Georgia to achieve fame playing both offense and defense as Georgia Tech’s “Sixty Minute Man” to become one of Atlanta’s most successful and well-known real estate developers. His latest creation, Croker Concourse, gleams proudly northeast of the central city, a symbol of his triumph, but already bank loan officers are demanding that Charlie restructure his company and sell off executive toys such as his jets, and they even cast coldly calculating eyes on his beloved plantation, Turpmtine.

Atlanta lawyer Roger White II (dubbed Roger Too White by his fraternity brother Wes Jordan, now Atlanta’s mayor) is asked to secure Charlie Croker’s public support of Fareek “The Cannon” Fanon, a star football player at Georgia Tech accused (although neither officially nor publicly) of date rape by the daughter of one of Atlanta’s most influential businessmen. In exchange, Roger White can help Charlie by having the banks ease their demands.

In the meantime, Conrad Hensley, a warehouse worker in California for Croker Global Foods, is laid off as part of a drive to cut costs for Charlie’s far-flung companies. Before long, in a series of misadventures, Conrad sits in a prison cell, his only diversion a volume of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. He begins to read and then to understand. Delivered from prison by an earthquake, Conrad makes his way to Atlanta, where he meets and befriends Charlie Croker and imparts the teachings of Epictetus. At the news conference during which he is expected to support Fanon, Charlie turns away from the banks, the black politicians, and the white power structure to reclaim his own integrity. It is when he renounces those who had a claim on his soul that Charlie Croker truly becomes “a man in full.”

As Wolfe glaringly exposes New York City in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he goes after Atlanta in A Man in Full. The city’s acclaimed economic strength, like Charlie Croker’s own empire, is an illusion. The towers downtown are deserted when work ends as their inhabitants begin the longest and worst commute in the United States, leaving the inner city 75 percent African American, creating a division that is as fatal as it is fatally ignored. Within the two communities, black and white, there are further divisions, highlighted by degrees of color, levels of wealth, and shades of accents and dialect—all of which, once again, Wolfe captures with a mix of confidence and exuberance.

I Am Charlotte Simmons

In a preface to I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe details a scientific study of two groups of cats, those in one group having small portions of their brains removed, those in the other remaining intact. The altered cats begin displaying aberrant behavior, engaging in doglike sexual movements but without stimulus and responding passively to terrifying situations, seemingly unable to sense danger. More intriguing is the reaction of the unaltered cats kept caged in full view of the show: They copy what they see. At first this scenario seems to bear little relationship to what promises to be a typical Wolfe study, this time of campus life at a fictional elite university modeled on several schools he visited in preparing to write the novel. The reader soon sees what he has in mind, however, in his tale of an innocent girl sent into a collegiate den of wolves.

Charlotte Simmons is a star in her backwoods North Carolina town. She has earned a perfect 1600 on her SATs and is enrolled at Dupont University. Her high intelligence and wide reading have not prepared her for the real world, however, where people drink, swear, and have casual sex. She is an outcast, scorned and ridiculed, yet three distinctly stereotypical college types seek her attention. Hoyt Thorpe is the best-looking boy in the best fraternity; he also has a running competition with his fraternity brothers to bed “fresh meat” (freshman girls) within seven hours. Jojo Johansen is the only white starter on the university’s basketball team. He appears intellectually challenged, though he eventually manages to earn an inflated C+ on a paper without the writing talent of Charlotte’s third pursuer, Adam Gellin, a college tutor. Adam works for the newspaper and sees himself as intellectually superior, belonging to a group of leftist thinkers who have labeled themselves the Millennial Mutants.

These renderings of the worst in any student body are not made easier to bear by the presence of a sympathetic protagonist. Charlotte is at first too rigid, smug, and clueless to be perceived of as intellectually gifted or as one who has any understanding of a world beyond the hills of her home. Then she plunges into the new reality of campus life, however, and begins to assume all the values of the group, viewing intellectual activity as less important than looking good by hanging around with the right people. In other words, in Wolfe’s view, Charlotte is the typical college student on a modern-day campus where athletes are adored, fraternities pump out future leaders, and nerds lurk in the shadows thinking deep thoughts. She has observed and then joined in, clearly influenced, as were the intact cats described in the preface.

To a disturbing extent, Wolfe’s view may ring true, but he has been faulted for creating caricatures rather than developing characters in I Am Charlotte Simmons. His people, as well as their motivations and morals, lack depth. He may want to show the university as a microcosm of the larger society, but he fails to provide the reader with a hint of reality. Somewhere among the status-seeking, morally loose coeds and the slacker, self-important, womanizing frat boys, somewhere among the athletes granted degrees for athletic rather than intellectual prowess and the countercultural types with puffed-up visions of their importance and the lack of worth of others, there are serious students. Do not look for them here.

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