The Bonfire of the Vanities

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The Bonfire of the Vanities  (1) is a 1987 novel written by Tom Wolfe.

The story is about New York City’s raging social and racial contrasts in the eighties of the past century; a hit and run accident of an honour student in the South Bronx sparks a chain of events that will hold the reader’s attention from the first to the last page of this novel.

Yet it is also about the downfall of a wasp, master of the universe – a Wall Street broker -. He is portrayed right from the start as the ideal victim of a personal delusion; he is vain, full of himself, obnoxious, totally committed to the establishment which allows him to believe that he actually is the master of the universe.

But deep down inside he does perceive the absurdity of his position, he does realize that there’s something wrong with it all, a pang of guilt haunts him to the point of collapse.

It’s almost as if the author wants his readers to expect right from the beginning that Sherman McCoy from Park Avenue will plunge down in the abyss by his own doing proving that in fact he is not master of the universe at all. He makes a series of senseless mistakes due to his rooted prejudices and deep set fears, in addition to the fact that he is living above decency – “insulated in that ivory tower”, as he often says throughout the novel, that is Park Avenue and the likes, conscious of the fact, albeit unadmittedly, that the luxury he enjoys elicits the angry envy of those he considers, with contempt, below him in the station of life.

Wolfe describes social injustices with a sharp observant eye, yet at the same time he outlines the useless and backlashing greedy envy of those mistreated by society. He is not kind with any of his characters, on the contrary, he focuses on their flaws to emphasize how circumstances are played and exploited, with shrewdness by some – those, for instance, who are driven by blind ambition, or are just mere pawns in a bigger game of power playing along to get their petty share of advantages -; while the same circumstances play down those who are, instead incapable of adapting to them.

McCoy is of this latter sort, he is just not apt to dealing with the underworld because he has done his best all his life to insulate himself from it and he has brilliantly succeeded until he is sucked in an unpredictable vacuum of sordid appetites that devour him to the bone shredding his life, and all he stands for, to pieces leaving him stark naked amidst his shame while they watch – the rest of the world, so he thinks – gloating at his debacle.

A View of a portion of Central Park

The Plot

Sherman McCoy, as we have said, is a Park Avenue broker, he comes from a great reputable old family of New York; he is a Yale graduate, still young and at the peak of his career. He lives in a luxury two floor apartment recently renovated by his wife who is an interior decorator of the high society. The refurbishing of the apartment has been very expensive pressing him to get a conspicuous loan which he is cleverly planning to extinguish thanks to a great deal he is about to close for the company he works for. He has worked in this direction for some time and now he is almost there, just about ready to pounce on his goal. He prides himself in thinking that he is Master of the Universe, and muses about this idea time and time again. He has everything going for him.

However, he is not perfect, he has been having an affair for some time with a married woman to whom he is strongly attracted, even though he feels guilty about it. He meets her occasionally in an appartment not far from where he lives, at a safe distance – we might say -, keeping things as secretive as possible because he does not want to thwart his respectability.

One evening, feeling particularly elated about himself, as he picks her up at JFK airport, he is in a silly humour and while he is lightheartdly conversing with Maria, his mistress, he misses the right exit to Manhattan and ends up in the Bronx. One single mistake. The Bronx – the jungle -, as they both identify the area, a nightmare for any white man belonging to NYC’s upper class, and at nighttime too; it’s the beginning of the end because there he is prey to anybody, a victim of sacrifice unfit to protect himself. And he knows it and so he panicks.

Westchester Ave, at Fox St., Bronx, 2015 – http://www.camiljosevergara.com

From that point on the novel describes this successful man’s endless blunders lacking any rational thinking in the desperate effort to save his image among his peers he, in fact, sets out his own destruction because he is not in the least the confident, cold and ruthless master of the unverse he deludes himself to be.

However, Wolfe stages the same delusions and prejudices on secondary characters too. All of them are caged in the rat-race of personal success and social or political advancement, not one of the lot escapes the logic of what they might gain for themselves out of the turmoil that Sherman’s life has become and that is being described, not one of them is genuinely concerned about the truth behind it all, not one of them is committed to any authentic principle they believe in.

On the contrary, those in power pursue even more power by exploiting the situation to their utmost advantage and the rest, poisoned by prejudices and social envy, they simply revel in exercising the most dispicable righteousness bestowed upon them by the law or their role of moral and spiritual guidance.

In fact, according to Wolfe, they are all guilty and all the institutions are profoundly corrupt because, as he underlines, every individual involved is out to save him/herself or take advantage of the circumstances. There is too much of everthing on either side, but what is, in fact, missing is the search for truth, therefore there is no clear cut difference between perpetrator or prosecutor, between the victim or victims of a crime or set up and those who should investigate in earnstness.

city room blog – http://www.thenewyorktimes.com

In the scene which describes McCoy’s arrest, for instance, it is quite natural for the reader to side with him for the vicious lynching he is subjected to out of sheer spitefulness and rahter than righting a wrong, the man in charge, the District Attorney, gives in to the temptation of getting as much publicity he can to gain political bias by the black community in upcoming election and maintain his power. McCoy is nothing but a good opportunity for his career and he never stops to consider what is the best way to handle the situation according to the principle of the law, as if to say that what counts is what things appear to be and not what they truly are.

The Characters

As for the protagonist of the novel, McCoy, the whole chain of events show him for what the really is, a weak immature over-grown spoilt man who is not really in charge of his life, or of himself either. Through his interior monologue, Wolfe, lets us take a peek into his thoughts and the truth of the matter is that he is not sincerely attached to anyone and he has only led his life trying to please others, complying to unsaid rules just to be part of the insulated pack, but, as the story unfolds, he realizes how alone he really is, even his wife turns her back on him, unsurprisingly.

There is not one likeable character in the entire novel, one way or the other, regardless of their social background, their intellectual worth, their political or moral standing; from the reverend Bacon, who supposedly should fight on the side of the poor and the destitutes of Harlem or the Bronx – as he claims to do -, to the journalist who should write to inform the public through facts; from the police to the D.A. and even his lawyer who should search and side with truth; in fact, they are all corrupt to the bone even if only for ambition or prejudices leading to some sort of personal vendetta or other.

The Setting

It is a world of underhand agreements, social and nationality loyalties and unsaid bonds, one block of interests up against the others; there is a great deal of personal pettiness as the reader can observe in Larry Kramer, the assistant D.A. out to gain popularity from this trial and have an affair with a woman who was in the jury of another trial he was involved in, or in the journalist, Peter Fallow, a calculating alcholic fraud who connives to overturn his life entirely. Principles and values are mere words used only to fool the people and ignite their blind fury leading them to senseless violence.

Wolfe portrays a realistic picture of NYC in the 80s, but it could very well be today in any part of the world and it just spells out clearly what everybody knows, that it is a matter of power; money buys power and privilege but you must know and master the rules of the game and once you are in you just cannot get out.

The Entrance of Central Park from 5th Ave

The Writing Technique

Tom Wolfe introduces the world he is laying before the reader’s eyes slowly, taking time in lavish descriptions of settings, characters’ personalities and their backgrounds drawing very vivid images full of crucial details that are never excessive as they fulfill his aim, that of giving the reader a very realistic picture of a whole universe with all its variety and manifold contrasts that are the essence of New York City, a unique place, indeed. He is capable of shifting from a tragic tone to one of pure humour without any breach of narration which in fact flows easily and grasps the reader’s attention never letting it go. The reading is in fact compelling.

But, in my opinion, Mr Wolfe masters dialogues above all, as a matter of fact all the conversations present in the novel, even a short exchange of remarks, sound absolutely natural, he never misses a beat and the vernacular is always appropriately blended with a more refined language, according to characters and circumstances. Moreover, what strikes most is undoubtedly his psychological insight of all the characters portrayed, they are all realistically depicted and each of them is full of contradictions, flaws and qualities intertwine as it happens with true to life human beings.

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An excerpt of some pages (2)

“Actually, I’m calling to inquire about one of your students, a young Mr. Henry Lamb”

“Henry Lamb. Doesn’t ring a bell. What’s he done?”
“Oh, he hasn’t done anything. He’s been seriously injured.”
He proceeded to lay out the facts of the case (..)
“What I would like to find out, Mr. Rifkind, is what kind of student Henry Lambs is.”
“What kind?”
“Well, would you say he was an outstanding student?”
“Where are you from, Mr. -I’m sorry, tell me your name again?”
“Fallow.”
“Mr. Fallow. I gather you’re not from New York.”
“That’s true.”
“Then there’s no reason why you should know anything about Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School in the Bronx. At Ruppert we use comparative terms, but outstanding isn’t one of them. The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening”. Mr. Rifkind began to chuckle. “F’r Chrissake, don’t say I said that.”
“Well, how would you describe Henry Lamb?”
“Cooperative. He’s a nice fellow. never gives me any trouble.”
“Would you describe him as a good student?”
“Good doesn’t work too well at Ruppert, either. It’s more ‘Does he attend class or doesn’t he?'”
“Did Henry Lamb attend class?”
“As I recall, yes. He’s usually there. He’s very dependable. He’s a nice kid, as nice as they come.”
“Was there any part of the curriculum he was particularly good -or, let me say, adept at, anything he did better than anything else?”
“Not particularly.”
“No?”
“It’s difficult to explain, Mr. Fallow. As the saying goes, ‘Es nihilo nihil fit.’ There’s not a great range of activities in these classes, and so it’s hard to compare performances. These boys and girls -sometimes their minds are in the classroom, and sometimes they’re not.”
“What about Henry Lamb'”
“He’s a nice fellow. He’s polite, he pays attention, he doesn’t give me any trouble. He tries to learn.”
“Well, he must have some abilities. His mother told me he was considering going to college.”
“That may well be. She’s probably talking about C.C.N.Y. That’s the City College of New York.”
“I believe Mrs. Lamb did mention that.”
“City College has an open-admissions policy. If you live in New York City and you’re a high-School graduate and you want to go to City College, you can go.”
“Will Henry Lamb graduate, or would he have?”
“As far as I know. As I say, he has a very good attendance record.”
“How do you think he would have fared as a college student?”
A sigh. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine what happens to these kids when they enter City College.”
“Well, Mr. Rifkind, can you tell me aything at all about Henry Lamb’s performance or his aptitude, anything at all?”
“You have to understand that they give me about sixty-five students in each class when the year starts, because they know it’ll be down to forty by mid-year and thirty by the end of the year. Even thirty’s too many, but that’s what I get. It’s not exactly what you’d call a tutorial system. Henry Lamb’s a nice young man who applies himself and wants an education. What more can I tell you?”
“Let me ask you this. How does he do on his written work?”
Mr. Rifkind let out a whoop. “Written work? There hasn’t been any written work at Ruppert High for fifteen years! Maybe twenty! They take multiple-choice tests. Reading comprehension, that’s the big thing. That’s all the Board of Education cares about.”
“How was Henry Lamb’s reading comprehension?”
“I’d have to look it up. Not bad, if I had to guess.”
“Better than most? Or about about average? Or what would you say?”
“Well … I know it must be difficult for you to understand, Mr. Fallow, being from England. Am I right? You’re British?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Naturally – or I guess it’s natural – you’re used to levels of excellence and so forth. But these kids haven’t reached the level where it’s worth emphasizing the kind of comparisons you’re talking about. We’re just trying to get them up to a certain level and them keep them from falling back. You’re thinking about ‘honor students’ and ‘higher achievers’ and all that, and that’s natural enough, as I say. But at Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School, an honor student is somebody who attends class, isn’t disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.”
(…)
(…)
(…) “Seems like a nice boy. We’re not supposed to call them boys, but that’s what they are, poor sad confused boys with a whole lotta problems.” 

(1) The Bonfire of the Vanities, pp. 590, Tom Wolfe; Bantam Books, New York City, 1987.

(2) Ibidem pp. 229-231

© L. R. Capuana

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