The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe

This one’s been on my shelf for a long time now. It seemed like a timely thing after reading a Paul Wells article suggesting that The Bonfire of the Vanities was the key to understanding the Donald Trump mentality, at least early on in his presidency. However, the book’s long, so it kept getting swept beneath others that held my interest. (And it’s weird how much more firmly my interest seems to be held by shorter books.) But I kept to my goal of reading it before the year was up, and it’s true that Wolfe’s satirical classic offers a snapshot of New York in the late ’80s, though it seems to me that, rather than being a gateway to a Trump mindset, a comparison to the Bonfire protagonist more clearly shows Wells’ low opinion of the president.

But I suppose that’s neither here nor there, at least in the context of a review; let’s talk about the book. Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader, moves among Manhattan’s most affluent circles, insulated from the dangers of the outside world and the lower classes who inhabit it. After a wrong turn takes him into The Bronx––a terrifying place for a white man of his standing––he narrowly escapes what he sees as a probable mugging and hits a black youth with his car in the process. Amid racial tensions across the city, actively instigated by protests and media coverage organized by a religious and political leader from Harlem, the District Attorney pushes to find and arrest the mystery driver with scant evidence. The Bonfire of the Vanities looks at the way Sherman’s life unravels as the story becomes a media circus while the law closes in.

Wolfe’s book is hefty, and I think this works to both its benefit and detriment, more positive than negative. The author really takes the time to ensure we see and hear things the way he wants us to, arguably on the cusp of too finicky in the way he expresses accents throughout. But he takes things even a step further, expressing so many fine details about the time and place, providing great context for characters from different classes and cultures across the boroughs to allow readers to better understand how they experience the world. I’d suggest that this makes the plot slow to start, but it makes things feel meaningful when we get there, almost like we’re in on something not readily available to the world at large, that Wolfe makes specialized snippets of society accessible. Of course, such a feat is likely impossible without fleshed out characters, and those in The Bonfire of the Vanities are most certainly complex. Wolfe plays with multiple perspectives to influence how the reader views them, and I was impressed at just how successful he was in this regard––that he could make me empathize with someone right after I strongly disliked them, for example.

And the book’s funny, but a better descriptor may be uncomfortable. I honestly found it hard to force myself to continue reading at least a few times, usually when Sherman got himself into some of his deeper jams, often because of his poor judgment and made all the more cringe-worthy due to his severe lack of cool under pressure. But I pushed through (not the chore it may sound like) and I was met with a compelling plot taking me through a living, breathing world, along with some touching insights into the human condition that occasionally hit a bit closer to home than I was expecting.