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`I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year.',
This review is from: The Bonfire of the Vanities (Picador Books) (Paperback)
The decade (and the city) that gave us Wall Street and Gordon Gecko, and American Psycho and Patrick Bateman, also gave us The Bonfire of the Vanities and Sherman McCoy. However, Tom Wolfe's best seller is more than just another lacerating satire on the frenzied money-making culture of the 1980s; it is a visceral attack on human greed, hypocrisy, double standards, political expediency and blind ambition.
Sherman McCoy, son of a respected Wall Street lawyer, top bond salesman and self-acclaimed `Master of the Universe' lives the high life with his interior designer wife and beloved daughter in a multi-million dollar Park Avenue apartment. He also has a mistress, femme fatale Maria Ruskin, married to a millionaire three times her age. One night, after picking her up from the airport, he misses the route and finds himself hurtling out of Manhattan and into the `jungle' of South Bronx, a community at that time imploding through drugs and violence. In a nebulous incident where they believe they are about to be attacked by two black boys after they had stopped, Maria takes control of the car and somehow manages to knock down one of the boys. More concerned about being discovered than about what had happened to the victim McCoy believes that he has got away with his misdemeanour when matters take an unexpected downturn. It turns out that the boy has not only been knocked down but is in an irrecoverable coma. There is a witness who has seen a white man and a white woman in a luxury Mercedes and has caught the first part of the number plate before it sped away from the accident. The community is then up in arms when it is discovered that the hospital had sent the boy, Henry lamb, home with an `injured wrist', and even more so when members of the legal profession state that `there is no case'. Is the life of a black boy in the Bronx worth less than that of a Wall Street trader? Through carefully-crafted propaganda `honor student' Henry Lamb is elevated into a beacon of community hopes and aspirations, and McCoy (when he is uncovered) demonised as a truculent and vitriolic racist, a symbol of the Wasp power structure. It is the clash of two contrasting worlds, which exist side by side by side but barely see each other, expressed in two manufactured extremes.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a terrific account of a man's life in meltdown, the life of a shallow and egotistical narcissist. As a result of his arrogance and casual racism Sherman McCoy becomes trapped in a corrupt and cynical criminal justice system, arrested in a media circus and turned into a political football. We watch him flounder and come apart at the seams with barely a modicum of sympathy from anywhere; certainly not from snooty but sleazy alcoholic English journalist Peter Fallow, ruthless Abe Weiss coming up for re-election and desperate for black votes, fiery, silver-tongued Episcopalian pastor Reverend Bacon, self-appointed spokesman for the black community, nor unscrupulous and ambitious Assistant District Attorney, Lawrence Kramer. The Bonfire is exciting (the chapter where McCoy and his mistress lose their way in the scary backstreets of the Bronx), hilarious (the chapter where through fear and guilt he virtually implicates himself when two detectives arrive at his apartment to make routine enquiries) and moving (his realisation of the effect that his humiliating downfall will have on his little daughter).
There have been criticisms. It is true that many of the characters in Wolfe's epic novel come across as caricatures but that is fine when so many people are self-parodies, anyway. And there is some risky stereotyping of communities. That may be politically incorrect, but it must be remembered that stereotypes are based in truth or they would not stick. It's just that they should never be used against an individual. Besides, it is more than just stereotyping. It is the convincing portrayal of the fragmented communities of New York and how their history and inherited problems and concerns eventually colour their perception of American justice. There is no bias or prejudice; Wolfe leaves no skulls un-cracked. He is particularly astute in recognising the petty niggles that occur between the Brits and the Yanks (two cultures divided by a common language). And finally, it must be said that the racy, journalistic style of this work is entirely apposite. It suits the subject matter and does not in any way detract from the literary quality of this outstanding piece of fiction; an iconic work for the little lamented era of gleaming Porsches, brick-sized mobile phones, junk bonds and money men in red braces.