Thursday, May 2, 2019

Book 179: The Bonfire of the Vanities

"Sherman lifted his Yale chin, squared his shoulders, straightened his back, raised himself to his full height, and assumed the Presence, the presence of an older, finer New York, the New York of his father, the Lion of Dunning Sponget." 

Dates read: September 22- October 2, 2017

Rating: 2/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

I try to pretend I'm kind and thoughtful, but I'll confess: when something bad happens to someone awful, even if they didn't deserve it, I don't usually feel sorry for them. I tend to figure that even if THIS bad thing isn't fair, per se, bad things that aren't fair happen to everyone, so at least when they happen to bad people we can smirk about it. What is life without those kind of tiny, petty joys?

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 that rating up there, 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...I read his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test a couple years ago, and I hated it just as much as I hated this. 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.

Tell me, blog friends...are there any writers that you just can't read because you don't like the way they write?

One year ago, I was reading: Game of Crowns

Two years ago, I was reading: The Highest Tide

Three years ago, I was reading: Enchanted Islands


  1. Fabulous review and I couldn't agree more! I read it back in the day and was sort of disgusted.

    1. I really felt like reading the first 50 pages was enough to get it and then there were many many hundreds of more pages

  2. I loved it back when I read it (years and years ago), but the world has changed a lot since then and I wonder what I'd think of it now?

    1. There are definitely some books that I look back on and the thought of revisiting is kind of scary!