Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Title: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Author: Tom Wolfe

Pages: 690

Source: My personal library

Challenges: Read 'n' Review challenge

Rating: 10/10

First Sentence: "'And then say what? Say, "Forget you're hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop -- Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem --'"

Summary (From Wikipedia):

The story centers on Sherman McCoy, a white, millionaire, New York City bond trader with a wife and young daughter. His life as a self-regarded "Master of The Universe" on Wall Street is destroyed when he and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, accidentally enter the Bronx at night while they are driving to Manhattan from Kennedy Airport. Finding the ramp back to the highway blocked by trash cans and a tire, McCoy exits the car to clear the way. Approached by two blacks whom they perceive — uncertainly, in Sherman's case — as predators, McCoy and Ruskin flee. Having taken the wheel of the car, which fishtails as they race away, Ruskin apparently strikes one of the two—a "skinny boy".

A faltering British alcoholic named Peter Fallow, journalist for the (fictional) tabloid City Light, is soon given the opportunity of a lifetime when he is persuaded to write a series of articles about Henry Lamb, a black youth who has allegedly been the victim of a hit and run by a wealthy white driver. Fallow cynically tolerates the manipulations of Reverend Bacon, a Harlem religious and political leader who sees the hospitalized boy as a projects success story done wrong. Fallow's series of articles on the matter ignites a series of protests and media coverage of the Lamb case.
Up for re-election and accused of foot-dragging in regards to the Lamb case, a media-obsessed Bronx District Attorney named Abe Weiss pushes for McCoy's arrest. The evidence consists of McCoy's undamaged car, which matches the description of the vehicle involved in the alleged hit and run, plus McCoy's evasive response to police questioning. The arrest humiliates McCoy and engenders in him thoughts of suicide.
Hoping to impress his boss as well as an attractive woman, Shelly Thomas, Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer aggressively prosecutes the case, opening with an unsuccessful bid to set McCoy's bail at a quarter of a million dollars. Thomas had been a juror in another case Kramer had prosecuted to conviction. Released on bail, McCoy is besieged by demonstrators who are protesting outside his three million dollar Park Avenue condominium.
Fallow hears a rumor that Maria was at the wheel of McCoy's car when it allegedly struck Lamb, but Maria has fled the country. Trying to smoke out the truth, on the pretense of interviewing the rich and famous, Fallow meets Maria's husband, Arthur, at a pricey French restaurant. While recounting his life, Arthur chokes to death, as disturbed patrons and an annoyed maƮtre d' look on. Maria is forced to return to the United States for his funeral, where McCoy, wearing a wire, confronts her about being "the only witness." Fallow, hoping also to talk with Maria, overhears this.
Fallow's write-up of the association between McCoy and Maria prompts Assistant D.A. Kramer to offer Maria a deal: corroborate the other witness and receive immunity — or be treated as an accomplice. Maria recounts this to McCoy while he is again wearing his wire. When a private investigator employed by McCoy's lawyer, Tommy Killian, discovers a recording of a conversation that contradicts Maria's grand jury testimony, the judge assigned to the case declares the testimony "tainted" and dismisses the case.
As the epilogue, a fictional New York Times article informs us that Fallow has won the Pulitzer Prize and married the daughter of City Light owner Gerald Steiner, while Ruskin has escaped prosecution and remarried. McCoy's re-trial ends in a hung jury, split along racial lines. Kramer is removed from the prosecution after it is revealed he was involved with Shelly Thomas, the former juror in a sexual tryst at the apartment formerly used by Maria and McCoy. It is additionally revealed that McCoy has lost a civil trial to the Lamb family and, pending appeal, has a $12 million liability, which has resulted in the freezing of his assets. The all-but-forgotten Henry Lamb succumbs to his injuries; McCoy, penniless and estranged from his wife and daughter, awaits trial for vehicular manslaughter. In the novel's closing, Tommy Killian holds forth:
"If this case was being tried in foro conscientiae [in the court of the conscience], the defendants would be Abe Weiss, Reginald Bacon, and Peter Fallow of The City Light."

My Two Cents:

I absolutely loved this book. I can't count the number of times I laughed out loud.

This was my first Wolfe, but I'd heard he is a gifted prose writer. That is absolutely true. I was trying, over the course of reading this book, to think of how I would describe Wolfe's prose, and the only word I could come up with was "crackling." The words just leap off the page and come at you at a rapid-fire pace. Here's an example:

The fever began to rise again. Suppose something did get in the papers ... even a hint ... How could he ever put the Giscard deal together under a cloud like that? ... He'd be finished! ... finished! ... And even as he quaked with fear of such a catastrophe, he knew he was letting himself wallow in it for a superstitious reason. If you consciously envisioned something that dreadful, then it couldn't possibly take place, could it ... God or Fate would refuse to be anticipated by a mere mortal, wouldn't He ...
Wolfe is also great at writing characters. Every single one of the characters in here, with the exception of some of the people we only see in passing, have their little back stories and quirks. That's one of the reasons this novel is so darn long; it takes a lot of time to draw up as many characters as Wolfe does. The one thing I found with this book, though, is that it was a lot like War and Peace for me, in that I didn't really like any of the characters, and I wasn't really sure who I was supposed to like.

I didn't like Sherman at first, mostly because he seemed like a spoiled rich guy who was cheating on his wife. But, as the story progressed, I grew to feel sort of sorry for him, but all that pity ended near the close of the book.

I started out liking Larry Kramer, but quickly sunk in my eyes for a number of reasons, including cheating on his wife and trying to pad his case to make himself look good. I can't stand when characters are unfaithful to their partners. It bugs me in fiction because it's something that bugs me in real life, so I think that's one of the main reasons I couldn't actually like either Sherman or Larry.

One of the things I found really interesting about this book was that every character of a minority persuasion seemed to be a stereotype. I know Wolfe was going for capturing the milieu of New York in the 1980s, and that atmosphere included a lot of prejudice and racial tension between whites and blacks (Not to mention the racial tension is key to his plot), but I think some readers could easily be turned off by the stereotypical nature of a lot of the characters. Personally, the stereotypical characters just made me really, really frustrated because they were just so... annoying ... that I couldn't stand it when they came into the picture.

The character in particular I'm thinking of is Reverend Bacon. He is a preacher who takes the racial cause into his own hands, often blowing situations and facts out of proportion to get noticed. He leads such a vehement campaign against the Bronx District Attorney because he says that the office (Populated by white men) is ignoring the case (In reality, there's basically no evidence to go on for a really long time) that the DA's office, once they finally get Sherman into custody, holds him up as a whipping boy. Sherman's attorney makes certain deals with one of the assistant DAs -- Deals such as quick processing when Sherman's arrested, which are fairly common from what I know of the law -- but those deals are thrown out the window simply because the DA is up for reelection in a highly minority area and he knows that he must pander to the people. I guess, looking back on it, I could say that it's a combination of Bacon's accusations and the DA's political desires that made me mad. I guess that's what Wolfe was going for the whole time. Hmm...

I have to say, though, that the character that I wanted to throttle the most was Peter Fallow, the British tabloid writer. As a former journalist, I tend to get pretty riled up when I see fictionalized journalists portrayed as muckrakers and people who will do anything to get a scoop. That's not how most honest journalists work. But not Peter. He digs and digs and digs, even showing up at Maria's husband's funeral and pressing her for information on the spot. I just wanted to scream at him, "You're what makes people think journalists are bad!"

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes a scathing look at the justice system, politics, Wall Street or pretty much anything about New York in the 1980s.


Aye.Me? said...

The first sentence intrigues me. Very thorough review which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. haha

Booksnyc said...

Wolfe is definitely a gifted writer. I actually haven't read this but Man in Full and I am Charlotte Simmons are also good.

Great review!

Jenners said...

I've never read any Tom Wolfe but now you are making me want to! Great review!

Diane said...

WOW, high praise for this book. I need to read it (I've been saying that for years). Great review.

Greg Zimmerman said...

I've always meant to read this, but haven't gotten to it yet - thanks for the great review. Quite timely, the subject matter, eh?

My first exposure to Wolfe was the dreadful A Man in Full, and then when I read some of the awful reviews of I Am Charlotte Simmons, I mentally wrote off this book as one I'd never try - even though many consider it a classic. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention in such a positive light!

Side note: Just looking at Wolfe's entry on wikipedia - apparently he has a new novel coming out this year titled Back To Blood, for which he got a $7 million advance! This sucker better be good!

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