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The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

by Tom Wolfe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,745113780 (3.81)1 / 233
Sherman McCoy, a young investment banker in Manhattan, finds himself arrested following a freak accident and becomes involved with prosecutors, politicians, the press, and assorted hustlers.
  1. 20
    A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks (browner56)
    browner56: Interesting social satire that takes shots at the hubris of the financial services industry
  2. 31
    Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis (mcenroeucsb)
  3. 31
    Election by Tom Perrotta (cf66)
  4. 43
    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (lucyknows)
    lucyknows: Great Expectations and Bonfire of the Vanities can be successfully tied together in that both the authors explore the themes of ostentation, ambition and morality
  5. 00
    The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: It's about the making of a movie from this book. Whether or not you enjoyed Bonfire, if you read it and you take Hollywood movies seriously, you'll probably enjoy Devil's Candy. (On the other hand if you don't take them seriously, don't bother with the Salamon & go for the movie itself--it's not *that* bad.)… (more)
  6. 01
    The Darlings by Cristina Alger (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  7. 02
    The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (citygirl)
    citygirl: Skewers those at the top of the heap in NYC. Both quite funny.
  8. 03
    Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney (TheBentley)
  9. 14
    The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (ann.elizabeth)
    ann.elizabeth: Literary fiction focused on a controversial, potentially illegal moment and its aftermath, examined from multiple points of view.

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Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, is filled with horrible people in 1980s New York City. Our main character is Sherman McCoy, a high-flying bond trader whose ridiculous salary somehow still isn't enough to fill his endless wants. One of those wants is a hot side piece, so he cheats on his interior designer wife with Maria Ruskin, herself the young trophy wife of a much-older rich businessman. The event that propels the entire narrative happens when he comes to pick her up from the airport one evening. On their way back to Manhattan, Sherman misses his exit and ends up in the Bronx. Now this is pre-Guiliani New York City, so crime rates are still quite high, and the Bronx in particular contributes significantly to this crime rate. Sherman is desperate to get out of the bad side of town in his fancy car, and so drives up a ramp back onto the highway only to find it blocked. When he gets out of his car to clear the debris, he's approached by two young black men, and he panics. He's aggressive with one of them, and when Maria gets behind the wheel and gets him into the car, they take off. He thinks he sees and feels one of the two guys get clipped by the car as it fishtails on their way out of there.

Sherman's inclined to report what happened to the police, but Maria dissuades him. But the guilt and worry begin to consume him, especially as the incident starts to pick up attention. Forces start to converge (a shady African-American preacher/activist type, an alcoholic English reporter desperate to prove his increasingly questionable worth to his employer, a Jewish DA trying to show the overwhelming minority community he serves action on their behalf in an election year), and Sherman is charged and sent to trial, where his prosecutor, Larry Kramer, is a man who seethes at the way his life has turned out, with a modest income that keeps him from being able to conduct the affair he wants to have with a former juror.

As you can probably tell from my very low rating, I hated this book. Basically everyone in it is The Worst, and no one's having any fun. I don't mind reading about morally questionable characters as long as they're compelling, but Sherman and everyone around him is miserable. Even before the accident, Sherman is living far beyond his considerable means and he's constantly worried about how to make sure he can stay afloat. Larry, who's the second lead in the book, is a covetous self-important blowhard obsessed with his own appearance and desirability to women. I hated both of them immediately and struggled so hard to make myself read this. It got better, plot-wise, as it went...when the pieces started coming together, I could appreciate the way Wolfe showed how the dysfunction of every participant in the process created the perfect storm in which Sherman was embroiled. But that doesn't mean I liked it.

I think part of it was the overwhelming male-ness of the narrative: all the major figures, save Maria, are dudes, and even Maria never gets the story told from her point of view the way the men do. I have no particular interest in masculinity crises, and there's a lot of that here. I think I'm also going to give up on Tom Wolfe from here on out...his tics as a writer, particularly his fondness of repetitious phrases, do not jibe with me as a reader. I recognize that as a satire of a particular time and place, it has merit, but I did not like it at all. I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone. ( )
  GabbyHM | Jun 24, 2020 |
I finished this last night, and I've been mulling it over all day. On the one hand, Wolfe is a talented writer, capable of creating vivid, visceral scenes. On the other hand, he relies on a lot of crutches, most notably the ellipsis-riddled paragraph to represent the frenzied thoughts of a person in panic.

Wolfe does a remarkable job of creating a bunch of horrible characters who we nonetheless end up having some positive feelings for at the end of the story. However, the reason we end up sympathetic toward the WASP protagonist at the end is the gross caricaturing of liberation theology and liberal activism on racial issues. The opening scene and the mirroring climax, involving black uprisings against perceived white injustice, evoke in the reader not sympathy or even understanding, but revulsion. This is the same feeling that Wolfe so savagely attacks in the rest of the book.

This mixed message results from Wolfe's refusal to pick one or two targets, instead choosing to attack everything: white fear, black radicalism, Wall St. greed, Ivy League (and all the institutions that feed the Ivy League) elitism, materialism, the obsession with image, the American lack of culture, European snobbishness, journalistic laziness and opportunism, the politics of victimhood, and America's vast reserves of inequality all meet Wolfe's acid pen. That's a lot for one book, and I think Wolfe would have been well-served to focus a little bit.

Aside from the lack of focus, a lot of Wolfe's criticisms seemed stale to me. That's completely unfair: it's not his fault I didn't read the book when it was fresh. It's not his fault I read American Psycho before Bonfire. It's not his fault I went to Hampshire. At the same time, if the novel is to be more than ephemeral, it must hold up to those of us who weren't reading novels in the mid-'80's. ( )
  wearyhobo | Jun 22, 2020 |
I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this novel. At times it felt prolix and superfluous. At other times I hung on every word. Maybe that's indicative of an editing problem; at 659 pages, the book might have benefitted from some trimming. There are moments of genius, particularly in the dialogue: the digressions, pauses, interjections, and prevarications of natural speech are all there, as well as the desultory anxieties of authentic internal dialogue. One of the great messages Wolfe delivers is that no one's hands are clean, none above traveling the dubious "subterranean path to the light." As a result, there isn't a single character with whom the reader is totally sympathetic.

The critical, almost Platonic, outlook on the "stuff" that distracts us calls to mind Don DeLillo's [b:White Noise|6719051|White Noise|Don DeLillo|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1331319621s/6719051.jpg|327422], published some three years before.

For example, describing the atmosphere of a shopping mall, DeLillo writes, "Voices rose ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery, mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction."

And in a similar passage, this one about a Fifth Avenue dinner party, Wolfe writes, "They went through the doorway, into the apartment's entry gallery. Such voices! Such delight! Such laughter!...the hive! -- the hive! -- the sonic waves of the hive made his very innards vibrate. Faces full of grinning, glistening, boiling teeth! How fabulous and fortunate we are, we few, to be in these upper rooms together with our radiant and incarnadine glows!"

( )
  TheaJean | Jun 2, 2020 |

This is clearly a top-notch book for its rabblerousing racial-hate mob-inducing polemics that plays to both conservatives and liberals at the same time while convincing me that everyone in New York City during the '80s is some of the most hateful, despicable politics-led morons on the planet. I hated the socialites and I hated the mob of the people led by the nose.

As a whole, this entire book can only be described as the enthusiastic stirring of a huge steaming pot of poo.

Satire? Oh, hell, I guess it is, just so long as us readers look at it like the over-the-top circus of buffoons that it is. Some great writing, of course. This is Tom Wolfe. But I'll ALWAYS love his nonfiction best.

So what's my problem? It's neither the all-out skewering of a wall-street idiot or outright caricatures of the media, judges, lawyers on both sides, or preachers. In fact, since this novel, I've read and watched enough lawyer shows, good ones, mind you, that this book seems rather paltry and lame.

But here's the kicker. This came out before OJ. It's almost like a silly premonition trying to put a rich entitled WASP on a pedestal even if he never gets out from under the heel of "justice". I'd have to make a pretty long case on this, but the outline is pretty clear. They were both farcical and absurd for the same reasons if not for the underlying causes. And yet, the causes are just a flip-side.

Public perception, racial politics, wagon-training justice, and people being people. Out for blood and damn reality. And you know what? I DIDN'T CARE FOR THE MAIN CHARACTERS AT ALL. None of them. Not sympathetic in the slightest. I wanted to see everyone burn. But they didn't.

Instead, we had a three-ring circus of a satire that doesn't go far enough and the subversively-angled conservative arguments playing out in this text are laughable. The liberal caricatures are even worse.

Reading both sides of this just makes me want to puke.

So? It's a modern novel holding a big stick and stirring a big pot of poo.

For some, maybe it's as entertaining as a car wreck. But not me. There are MANY better examples of satire that work so much better. ( )
1 vote bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
Fantastic read and probably becoming more and more relevant. ( )
  Conor.Murphy | May 27, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
So regularly is Tom Wolfe's brash 1987 tome described as "the quintessential novel of
the 80s" that you almost feel the phrase could be slapped on as a subtitle. But the ability
to "capture the decade" isn't the only measure of a writer's ability, and like a hot-pink
puffball dress, this story displays a blithe disregard for nuance.

Sherman McCoy, known to himself as a "Master of the Universe",
is a millionaire bond trader at Wall Street's Pierce and Pierce,
where the roar of the trading floor "resonate[s] with his very
gizzard". His mastery is punctured, however, when, with his
mistress at the wheel, his Mercedes hits and fatally injures a
young black man in the Bronx. The story of McCoy's subsequent
downfall is told alongside those of three other men, all
characterised by their raging ambition and vanity: an alcoholic
tabloid journalist desperate for a scoop; a power-hungry pastor;
and a district attorney keen to impress one of his former jury
members, the brown-lipsticked Miss Shelly Thomas.

Wolfe revels in the rambunctious, seething world of 80s New
York and brings to life in primary-colours prose a city fraught
with racial tensions and steeped in ego. The contrasting worlds of
McCoy and his victim, Henry Lamb, are vividly dramatised, if not
with great subtlety: rich, white Park Avenue versus poor, black Bronx.

At one particularly extravagant party, McCoy strays into a room described as "stuffed…
with sofas, cushions, fat chairs and hassocks, all of them braided, tasselled, banded,
bordered and... stuffed". Sometimes this big beast of a novel feels the same: dense with
research and bulging with bombast. Yet, it has to be admitted, it's also great fun.
added by browner56 | editThe Observer, Hemione Hoby (Jan 9, 2010)
The Nazi and fascist movements in Europe subscribed to similar sentiments. But, because Wolfe does not use anti-Semitic or racist epithets, the truly reactionary character of his societal vision is often unrecognized. The movie actually performs one important public service. By turning the book into a ghastly movie, the reactionary character of the book becomes far more apparent for all to see.
Sheer entertainment against a fabulous background, proving that late-blooming first-novelist Wolfe, a superobserver of the social scene (The
Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), has the right stuff for fiction. Undertaken as
a serial for Rolling Stone, his magnum opus hits the ball far, far, far out of the park. Son of Park Avenue wealth, Sherman McCoy at 35 is perhaps
the greatest bond salesman on Wall Street, and eats only the upper crust. But millionaire Sherman's constant inner cry is that he is "hemorrhaging
money." He's also a jerk, ripe for humiliation; and when his humiliation arrives, it is fearsome. Since this is also the story of The Law as it applies
to rich and poor, especially to blacks and Hispanics of the Bronx, Wolfe has a field day familiarizing the reader with the politics and legal
machinations that take place in the Bronx County Courthouse, a fortress wherein Sherman McCoy becomes known as the Great White Defendant.
One evening, married Sherman picks up his $100-million mistress Maria at Kennedy Airport, gets lost bringing her back in his $48,000 Mercedes-
Benz, is attacked by two blacks on a ramp in the Bronx. When Maria jumps behind the wheel, one black is hit by the car. Later, he lapses into a
terminal coma, but not before giving his mother part of Sherman's license plate. This event is hyped absurdly by an alcoholic British reporter for
the The City Light (read: Rupert Murdoch's New York Post), the mugger becomes an "honor student," and Sherman becomes the object of vile
racist attacks mounted by a charlatan black minister. Chunk by chunk, Sherman loses every footing in his life but gains his manhood. Meanwhile,
Wolfe triumphantly mounts scene after magnificent scene depicting the vanity of human endeavor, with every character measured by his shoes and
suits or dresses, his income and expenses, and with his vain desires rising in smoke against settings that would make a Hollywood director's tongue
hang out. Often hilarious, and much, much more.
added by browner56 | editKirkus Review
There has probably never been a less prescient journo-novel than The Bonfire of the Vanities, which subliminally heralded a New York that was given over to wild and feral African politics at one end (reading from north to south of Manhattan Island) and dubious market strategies at the other. The market strategies continue. Indeed, Wall Street has almost deposed the opinion polls as the index of national wellbeing. The ethnic spoils system, meanwhile, is manipulated by the same class as ever. If either of these elements ever undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, it won’t be Tom Wolfe who sounds the alarm.
added by SnootyBaronet | editLondon Review of Books, Christopher Hitchens
added by lucyknows | editscis (pay site)

» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wolfe, Tomprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carano, RanieriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fastenau, JanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jukarainen, ErkkiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lenders, BaltTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marcellino, FredCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verbart, GerardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Doffing his hat, the author dedicates this book to Counselor Eddie Hayes who walked among the flames, pointing at the lurid lights. And he wishes to express his deep appreciation to Burt Roberts who first showed the way.
First words
"And then say what?" (Prologue)
At that very moment, in the very sort of Park Avenue co-op apartment that so obsessed the Mayor ... twelve-foot ceilings ... two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who own the place and one for the help ... Sherman McCoy was kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund.
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