Monday 21 May 2012

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I really enjoyed this and have been meaning to read it for a while. I saw the film a long time ago but had forgotten most of the essential details. (If I remember correctly the film was critically panned on release but I can't quite remember why). Nevertheless, the shadow of the eponymous film still cast itself on my imagination and it was difficult not to picture Tom Hanks whilst Wolfe captured the journey of his "anti-hero", Sherman McCoy (possibly not a strictly accurate term in this context, I admit). The same thing happened to me last year with 'Tess of the d'Ubervilles' and Natasha Kinski. Damn that Polanski!

It was by chance that the book I read two books before 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' (TBotV) was Dickens's 'Hard Times' and, as Wolfe explains in the introduction to this his debut novel, TBotV is his attempt at to write a great city novel with the depth and ambition as those created by nineteenth century novelists such as Charles Dickens. In fact his Introduction to TBotV, entitled 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast', is a fascinating study of realist and non-realist novel writing trends in the twentieth century and how in 1987 he was attempting to write a broad realistic novel about New York which was completely out of step with the more non-realist - even magical realist! - writing trends of the time. If I was a lecturer teaching students about the history of novel writing then they would all have to read this introductory chapter (and the rest of the book of course). Tom Wolfe simply critiques the "write about what you know" approach to writing as being too narrow and warns young writers that this approach can lead to the cul-de-sac of believing that the "only valid experience is personal experience".

I haven't got loads to say about the book itself right now except that it was an amazing read. If his aim was to capture the city of New York at a particular post-war moment (the late 1980s) where politics, finance and personal morality were all at their over-inflated, twisted and seething apex then he more than matched his original ambition. Unlike Dickens he dispenses with any need to have a character (or two) that are unadulterated or morally pure and instead we have characters that are very human and believably corrupt. Sherman McCoy is Wolfe's master creation, however, and in fact he is a Master of the Universe - a Wall Street bond-trader who collects enough substantial crumbs from cake makers of the world economy to afford, at a push, what passes for the high life in NYC. McCoy's tortuous journey from being the most respected and highly remunerated trader at investment-banking firm, Pierce & Pierce, (with a Park Avenue apartment, wife and daughter to boot!) to being accused of perpetrating a hit-and-run on a young black honor student, is told by Wolfe in a such painful psychological detail you might be forgiven for thinking that the story was written in the first person but no, he still manages to move between his other New York characters occupying their minds en route.

It is twenty-five years since the book was published and it still feels very relevant. The distorting and destructive impact of the politics of race and an economy over-reliant on the crumb-collectors of Wall Street are clearly still playing themselves out, if I can be forgiven a rather large generalisation. At the end of the book I was rooting for McCoy to win and perversely enjoyed the thrill he was getting from his crazed lashings out, but this, I'm afraid, is where Wolfe leaves his audience: thrashing around in the carcass of a truly outstanding city that can suck the soul from its downtrodden, huddled masses and sometimes even its most privileged inhabitants. Bleak? Certainly. An irreversible fate? I don't think so.

The Bonfire of the VanitiesThe Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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