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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
(4/5 stars)

In all 31 flavors of "Law and Order on TV, the NYPD and DA's office disposes of a case from the incident to the trial in an hour—sometimes two if it's a two-part episode. In"Bonfire of the Vanities" Tom Wolfe does the same thing in about 700pages. That's because Wolfe brings to bear all the complexities of trying a case in the real world.
In the mid-1980s, Sherman McCoy is a bond salesman at Pierce& Pierce, a self-described "Master of the Universe" with a three million-dollar apartment on Park Avenue, a wife who spends thousands on decorating it, a six-year-old daughter who attends a pricey private school, and a mistress named Maria Ruskin, who herself is wealthy from marrying a much-older man. One night Sherman goes to pick Maria up at the airport and their Mercedes Benz becomes lost on the seedy streets of the Bronx. They're approached by two black kids, and from there the "Master of the Universe"becomes an unwitting pawn of a black "reverend" hungry for publicity, a drunken British reporter hungry for a story, and a Bronx DA hungry for re-election. Because in the real world,cases aren't solved in an hour and "justice" is a game won or lost based on who can cheat the most and get away with it.

Like an ancient Greek tragedy, McCoy has to pay for his hubris. So do some of the other characters, although others are seemingly rewarded for their bad behavior. This is certainly not a novel of white hats and black hats where the good guys triumph and the bad guys get their just reward. If you want that, you'd better stick to the TV.

What Wolfe does so well with this book is to paint the "big picture" of New York City in the 1980s with its melting pot of Irish, Italians,Jews, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Wasps. All of these rival factions collide with the McCoy case to depict not just the justice system, but society as a whole. It's an unflattering image to say the least, even viewed through the prism of satire. More importantly,the image of black against white and rich against poor is still applicable today in America's major cities. That makes Wolfe's book as relevant today as it was back in the '80s.

Wolfe's writing itself can get a little tedious and long-winded at times. There are so manynuances and complexities and tangents going on throughout the book. While these provide richness and depth, at some point it becomes overkill. The stuff about the mayor and the Episcopal Church was interesting, but not really necessary. As well there are…so many ellipses…and exclamation points! It can be a little irritating after 700 pages.

Still, it's a relatively minor flaw in what is a great book that even at 700 pages shouldn't take too long to read because it's so funny and clever that it's hard to put down. I had previously read Wolfe's "Man in Full" that came out ten years after "Bonfire of the Vanities" and has many of the similar themes of race,class, and a rich man in legal peril, though it takes place in Atlanta instead of New York. I'd recommend that book as well.

As for the 1990 movie of "Bonfire of the Vanities" it pretty much makes every critic's worst list, so I wouldn't recommend that. The movie does stick to at least most of the book's main points. In its defense, it would be impossible to depict all the subtleties and nuances of Wolfe's novel on the big screen. Trying to adapt it really was an impossible mission.

That is all…

1 comment:

Briane P said...

So where would you rank this book in the pantheon of great books?

I put it in the top 10, EVER.