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on 14 June 2012
Coming to this book some 25 years after it was published, I feel certain that I wouldn't have enjoyed it 25 years ago. Maybe this is because I'm English, I live in Scotland and I'm an earth-mother type of woman - and this book is extremely male-centric and is about image and greed amongst the wealthy upper echelons of New York, so there's not a lot of common ground or shared experience.

However, I've read it now and although I found it hard going at times (the writing style, the shallow male perspective, the only women in the book are very peripheral and are either wives or seductresses) I am actually glad that I decided to read it. It covers a timeless topic - that of selling your soul for short term gratification - and this topic is graphically painted across a city backdrop where everyone is selling their soul at some level or another. I quite enjoyed immersing myself in this world for a few days. It felt very real.

Would I recommend it? I think it's worth the read for a number of reasons - for the exploration of what it means to be a political football, to witness the creation of a media circus, to be given a picture of the cultural melting pot of New York in the '80s. All of this was illuminating for me and made the read worthwhile - so if you aren't sure about the story itself, read it for these reasons and see what you get out of it.
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on 23 November 2007
This is apparently Tom Wolfe's first foray into writing a novel. I am a big fan of his journalistic writings and on that basis, Wolfe uses a similar cutting and witty style to satirise New York politics through the story-line. Interestingly, in the introduction, Wolfe states that he set out to write a book about New York, which explains why this story encapsulates so much of the colourful society within this city. More importantly, the story revolves around the politics and tensions between these facets of race and class, resulting in a combustible plot.

Throughout the novel, the inimitable Wolfe style made me laugh out loud as it has done previously, however because it's fiction, Wolfe has free rein using plotline to comment on the ridiculousness of certain aspects of New York society .

Beyond the cleverness and humour of the story, Wolfe takes the social issues and makes you think twice about what is really going on. How can Sherman McCoy, the arrogant reptilian protagonist be the subject of your pity? How can liberality be the gaoler of truth? This ambiguity is what makes this a thought-provoking and memorable book.
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on 12 August 2005
Chic New York, a city built on aspiration and embodying a cultural elite who have had to create their elitism in the face of Mammon and cultural diversity. Another New York, an existence built on aspiration and hopes of survival, a daily life embodying a struggle to maintain cultural autonomy, group identity, some form of respect, a New York teeming with diversity and the struggle to get by in the teeth of hatred, racism, poverty, greed, drugs, violence, and the overwhelming desire of the cultural and political elite to sweep the streets clear of the detritus of city life.
New York in the 1980's, like English society in the 19th century, its cultural and economic elite struggling to set themselves apart, to emphasise that they possess 'real' class, that they are not contaminated by overnight riches. New York where the rich compete to be admired, to be seen, to be respected for their style and savoir faire, a city where a designer apartment is de rigueur.
This is a New York in which Kramer, one of Wolfe's characters, can embrace relief when he discovers that he no longer feels inferior to their English nanny. Insecurity is at the root of elitism, whether it is the struggle to remain in the top echelons of society or to survive in the gutter. Adultery can be carried on with discretion, so can drug use. The rich strive to insulate themselves from contact with the lower classes, the detritus strive to insulate themselves from the law and their own deadly rivals.
Tom Wolfe produces a New York of hermetically sealed compartments, exclusive social groupings struggling to preserve themselves from the risk of contamination by others. It's a cultured world, fuelled by the dynamism of Wall Street, yet so different from the barrow-boy culture of Thatcher's London.
Wolfe writes with such pace and easy flow, you find yourself swept up in the dynamic of the narrative as he introduces his cast of characters and weaves them together in a vast plot which has conspiracy theory written all the way through. Wolfe's dialogue is outstanding - he creates three dimensional characters, you can almost hear their words in your eyes, can see them leap alive from the page. You can, in fact, forget the story and simply indulge yourself in enjoying the writing.
The Picador version delivers an incisive introduction by the author which sets the novel ablaze. He dissects the history of the American novel in the 20th century, pointing out that in the second half of the century novelists strove to escape the contamination of realism; they aspired to a more obscure, less accessible style.
However, the real world fought back. Americans have woken up every morning for the last twenty years or more to find their newspapers and television channels exposing scandals, corruption, political intrigue, religious hypocrisy and sexual shenanigans the like of which no author could write without being damned as too fanciful to be credible.
The real world has become like the combined imaginations of a creative writing class on drugs. Novelists seem like boring drudges in comparison. And Wolfe delivers the examples of characters about whom he was writing being pre-empted by real life events - he's had to rewrite because the story has happened already and he'll simply be accused of lifting the idea from the 'Times' or CNN.
Wolfe's world of New York is a vibrant, frustrating, infuriating, cesspit of trivial drama and petty positioning. He demonstrates that the novelist can deliver insights which newspapers and television news cannot. Wolfe explores a world where everyone is striving to feel morally superior, culturally superior, physically superior. He delivers a city about which you can laugh ... and delivers insights which cause you to sit back and reflect on your own vanities, self-satisfaction, and insecurities.
A superb novel by a brilliant writer - dynamic, acerbic, hilarious, tragic, painful ... and universally human.
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on 10 January 2012
When a novel captures the essence of the times in which it's set, that's the recipe for a truly immersive experience. The greed, posturing and shallow absurdity of the 80s (as I and many others seem to recall them) is so skilfully reflected I can't think of any better example in fiction. Think 'American Psycho', sans sexual violence and those lengthy discourses on the 'work' of Huey Lewis & the News - but plenty else to laugh at. The set pieces are sometimes breathtaking (my favourite being the 'Death, New York Style' chapter). In the end, though - for me - it's the sheer pace of the horribly unwinding tale that makes this one of the most exciting reads I could name. Picking up this book, it's like you and Sherman McCoy are jumping out of an aircraft. The only way is down. Fast. And the only question is how hard you're going to land.
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on 22 March 2016
Wolfe’s big 80s satire is a strange beast. In some respects it works very well and in others it is dissatisfying, even irritating. The plot itself is really rather simple but Wolfe compensates for this by closely examining the day-to-day lives and experiences of his characters, and although not much actually happens what does occur is described at length and with flourish. The characters are larger than life and again Wolfe delights in telling us much about their appearance, mores, and behaviours. Unfortunately not one of them is relatable or likeable. He is very good at imparting the growing sense of fear and desperation felt by Sherman McCoy, especially during certain lengthy depictions of his experiences at the hands of the New York judicial system, but it’s hard to care much because McCoy is so unsympathetic. Wolfe is annoyingly fond of homophonous interpretations of accents and the sounds people make, and he also has something of an obsession with exclamation marks (there are scores in the first few pages alone, although he does calm down a little after that). I also felt a little cheated by the fact that many of the characters reach no resolution and simply fade away as the book progresses. Even the epilogue, which hastily ties up some of their stories (including McCoy’s) reads like an afterthought and is not as convincing as I would have liked. THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is like a feast of lavish snacks rather than a wholesome meal, and ultimately fails to live up to its many sumptuous parts. But Wolfe writes with skill and verve and this is never a dull book even if it’s not as satisfying as it should be.
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on 21 March 2015
Reading this in 2015 I can see how and why so many people claim that this is one of the many novels to define the greedy, rampant consumerist, egotistical, de-regulated insane world of 80s capitalism at it's most bloated and extreme. Like Jonathan's Coe's "What A Carve Up" this book is scarily relevant to what is still going on today in the exact same part of the world.

This is really well written and in spite of the weighty 731 pages you wilI still find yourself flying through it. Pin sharp dialogue, great characters and wonderful stories help speed it all along. You will laugh, you will cringe and you will recognise almost every single character.
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on 15 December 2013
This must be one of the funniest yet most savagely satirical books I've ever read. The picture of New York society is, I suppose, limited - it deals with the rich and successful, with the poor and disadvantaged seen through their eyes in a distorted way, yet Wolfe manages to convince us of just how unjust, self-seeking, artificial, ruthless and ridiculous upper-class New Yorkers are. All the characters are credible, and even the very minor ones in the huge cast are devastatingly captured - for example, Mrs Pitt, known as 'the bottomless Pitt' because of her extreme and fashionable thinness. When the whole of society is based on a complete absence of morality - there isn't an admirable character in the book - the ending, which in a way seems disappointingly inconclusive, is on reflection exactly what would happen. Despite all this, the needle-sharp writing kept me reading and enjoying it till the end. It seems all too relevant to present-day financial workers. Particularly funny - and I mean laugh-out-loud funny - is the chapter called 'Death New York Style'. Read it!
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on 15 October 2007
Reading the reviews below, it seems Bonfire is a pretty divisive book... I myself picked it up about a decade ago got two hundred pages in and then jacked it in as a bad job... Something I rarely, if ever do... Usually I wade on to the end regardless.

It must have left some impression, though. I picked it up recently and devoured the whole thing in days.

For me the journalistic style and fast paced episodic narrative really worked this time around... Though that said the plot doesn't really wrap up well at the end... and I get the impression the author ran out of steam as he reached the finish line... One scene seems particularly contrived... Not to spoil it for some readers, but the death in a restaurant in the last 100 pages or so seems a little too convenient in drawing things to a close.

The characters are universally repugnant, as has been noted, but also incredibly well observed... And even at their worst they illicit sympathy and (dare I say it) some recognition from this reader.

I even felt a little sorry for Sherman as the plot unfolded. I'd like to think if Wolfe revisited that character now, 20 years on, he would prove to be a better man for the comeuppance he receives in Bonfire than he would've been if not.

One tip I would recommend is read it as fast as you can! This is a book that has to be devoured quickly for best effect... It's tightly paced and dense so if you let it drift it could start to be a chore rather than a pleasure.
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on 13 July 2008
This was a brilliantly constructed "masterpiece", capturing its time and place superbly (as promised on the jacket); it sweeps across the social classes by interweaving the lives of a disparate set of characters all brought to what looks like it will be a final climatic court scene. The author was able to provide sympathetic hooks for each of the characters in the story such that it was difficult to know who to "root for" in what seemed to be the inevitable court showdown. But this is where the book let this reader down. The final few chapters could have brought a memorable book to a crescendo; instead it all fell flat tailing off into a series of footnotes about what happened to the characters after the main story had been told. It was as if the author had become bored with the story, or could not work out how to end it satisfactorily. For this reader this book had parallels with Fielding's Tom Jones - a cracking multi-character narrative brought to the brink; and then tailed off through an author's dis-interest or disinclination to continue in the same style. Maybe the sheer size of both books is the clue.
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on 12 August 2005
Chic New York, a city built on aspiration and embodying a cultural elite who have had to create their elitism in the face of Mammon and cultural diversity. Another New York, an existence built on aspiration and hopes of survival, a daily life embodying a struggle to maintain cultural autonomy, group identity, some form of respect, a New York teeming with diversity and the struggle to get by in the teeth of hatred, racism, poverty, greed, drugs, violence, and the overwhelming desire of the cultural and political elite to sweep the streets clear of the detritus of city life.
New York in the 1980's, like English society in the 19th century, its cultural and economic elite struggling to set themselves apart, to emphasise that they possess 'real' class, that they are not contaminated by overnight riches. New York where the rich compete to be admired, to be seen, to be respected for their style and savoir faire, a city where a designer apartment is de rigueur.
This is a New York in which Kramer, one of Wolfe's characters, can embrace relief when he discovers that he no longer feels inferior to their English nanny. Insecurity is at the root of elitism, whether it is the struggle to remain in the top echelons of society or to survive in the gutter. Adultery can be carried on with discretion, so can drug use. The rich strive to insulate themselves from contact with the lower classes, the detritus strive to insulate themselves from the law and their own deadly rivals.
Tom Wolfe produces a New York of hermetically sealed compartments, exclusive social groupings struggling to preserve themselves from the risk of contamination by others. It's a cultured world, fuelled by the dynamism of Wall Street, yet so different from the barrow-boy culture of Thatcher's London.
Wolfe writes with such pace and easy flow, you find yourself swept up in the dynamic of the narrative as he introduces his cast of characters and weaves them together in a vast plot which has conspiracy theory written all the way through. Wolfe's dialogue is outstanding - he creates three dimensional characters, you can almost hear their words in your eyes, can see them leap alive from the page. You can, in fact, forget the story and simply indulge yourself in enjoying the writing.
The Picador version delivers an incisive introduction by the author which sets the novel ablaze. He dissects the history of the American novel in the 20th century, pointing out that in the second half of the century novelists strove to escape the contamination of realism; they aspired to a more obscure, less accessible style.
However, the real world fought back. Americans have woken up every morning for the last twenty years or more to find their newspapers and television channels exposing scandals, corruption, political intrigue, religious hypocrisy and sexual shenanigans the like of which no author could write without being damned as too fanciful to be credible.
The real world has become like the combined imaginations of a creative writing class on drugs. Novelists seem like boring drudges in comparison. And Wolfe delivers the examples of characters about whom he was writing being pre-empted by real life events - he's had to rewrite because the story has happened already and he'll simply be accused of lifting the idea from the 'Times' or CNN.
Wolfe's world of New York is a vibrant, frustrating, infuriating, cesspit of trivial drama and petty positioning. He demonstrates that the novelist can deliver insights which newspapers and television news cannot. Wolfe explores a world where everyone is striving to feel morally superior, culturally superior, physically superior. He delivers a city about which you can laugh ... and delivers insights which cause you to sit back and reflect on your own vanities, self-satisfaction, and insecurities.
A superb novel by a brilliant writer - dynamic, acerbic, hilarious, tragic, painful ... and universally human.
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