Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: The new gilded age


I picked up Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities because a client and a friend had suggested it, especially because of the New York City location, and because I also thought it could be used for the Chunkster Challenge. It comes about 60 pages short for the latter, but I’m glad that it was a book I embarked on. Bonfire had a ridiculous sense of energy, an insane cast of characters that could rival a novel by Dickens or Pynchon, and an overabundant use of exclamation points and ellipses – though when Wolfe toned them down, they were kind of missed.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of how a fictional 1980s court case comes together. Sherman McCoy is a Yale-educated (and -chinned) investment banker whose speciality is bonds. He considers himself a Master of the Universe because of this, his $3.5 million apartment that has been featured in an architectural magazine, his interior decorator wife and private school educated daughter. And because of his southern mistress, Maria Ruskin. When picking Maria up from the airport, he can’t move far enough over on the highway and ends up in the Bronx, what Sherman and Maria later refer to as the jungle. Fear and a sense of being lost ensues, and when they are approached by two young Bronx projects locals, something goes amiss. Maria, when she grabs the wheel, ends up knocking one of the kids down with the car. The kid, Henry Lamb, an honors student, goes into a serious coma, but not before he can say that he was hit by a white couple in a black Mercedes.
The rest of the novel is about how detectives find out about this case due to the investigative work by a expat British journalist, Peter Fallow, who breaks the story through hints from Reverend Bacon, a religious and political leader much like Al Sharpton, a man who incites the Bronx community to rise up and get the court system to find the hit-and-runners and bring justice to Henry Lamb and the poor neighborhoods of New York City. The novel becomes an excited meditation on politics, justice, soullessness, race, class, and lies.
And it speeds along with Wolfe’s estranged sense of humor and keen insight into New York City culture of the disgusting 1980s. The frightening thing is that the New York of then sounds very much like the New York of today: bankers thinking they’re at the top of society, abstract money being moved around to create more money, characters like Reverend Bacon still exist, wealth is at the forefront, everyone’s in it to sue someone else, a class system can be apparent in a world where class systems shouldn’t be. The novel certainly still resonates, which I found shocking as it was written over 20 years ago, a time when New York City was supposed to be much more shady and frightening. And though it may have been cleaned up a bit since then, I could see this story happening today. It probably is. Which makes this a worthy read.


Jenny said…

I probably would never have picked this one up to read, but this review has me really interested in it! I'm adding it to my list. Great review!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said…

I do enjoy Tom Wolfe's writing, but haven't read this one yet. It sounds like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Salvatore said…

Thanks Jenny. I hope you end up liking it, despite the characters being so grimy.

Salvatore said…

Scary, right? Any other suggestions on the Wolfe side?