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Tom Wolfe - The Bonfire of the Vanities Legolas Send a noteboard - 01/09/2011 08:16:42 PM
Tom Wolfe has long been one of the many authors on my rather vague "I should read this at some point" list (although it now turns out I had been amalgamating Tom Wolfe and Thomas Wolfe, who as it turns out are entirely different writers of different generations... what can I say, American literature isn't my strongest suit). When I stumbled across an interesting-looking novel called The Bonfire of the Vanities a few weeks ago in the library, by said author, it was hence an easy decision to give it a shot. Especially since I'd recently read and rather enjoyed William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which this book obviously owed some kind of debt to.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is Wolfe's first novel, published when he was 56. He was an established writer at that point, having written numerous non-fiction books, several of them satirical descriptions of various phenomena. As he describes in the introduction, he kept finding "material" in and around New York that would be great to write a "big novel" about - and kept using it for non-fiction books, postponing his ambition of a "big novel" further and further. It's probably safe to say that the long wait paid off.

The plot of the novel focuses on Sherman McCoy, a wealthy and successful bonds trader on Wall Street, who likes to think of himself as one of the "Masters of the Universe". But when, one evening, he goes to pick up his mistress from the airport and somehow manages to get lost in the Bronx, things get out of hand quickly. It's a decent and engrossing plot - if a bit strangely tied up at the end - but it's Wolfe's satirical scenes and social commentary, and the descriptions of New York City, that make this book stand out. It shows that he had spent decades observing New York and writing non-fiction about some aspects of the city that he could now re-use in fiction - be it the snobbery of Park Avenue, the justice system in the Bronx or the importance of using the right accent in the right setting.

That last bit is something Wolfe devotes a lot of attention to. The many variants of English spoken by various groups in New York - the educated American English of the rich WASPs and a limited number of black characters, the speech patterns of the black community of the Bronx and that of their Italian and Irish neighbours, the Yiddish-influenced lingo of the Jews, the posh British of the expat Britons, the Southern drawl of a few newcomers to the city, and so on - are given a great deal of attention, and characters often adapt their natural speech to the environment they happen to be in (although for some reason Wolfe keeps using the same instance of that, the choice between "he doesn't" and "he don't";). Of course, language is merely one of the ways in which all those communities differ, but it is the one Wolfe devotes the most attention to.

Characterization is clearly less of a priority for Wolfe. Few of the characters are more than one-dimensional, and some are outright caricatures. But then, it's characterization of the city and its various constituent groups that he cares about, more than that of individuals. The reader isn't really supposed to identify or even sympathize much with any character. Nevertheless, I dare say for some readers this will be a significant point against the book.

As a satire and as a description of the New York City of the late eighties, this is an excellent novel, and there are too many memorable scenes to list. As far as plot and characters go, it could have been better, which keeps it from being a true masterpiece in my opinion. Still, I warmly recommend it, and will now keep an eye out for Wolfe's other writings, fiction and non-fiction both.
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Tom Wolfe - The Bonfire of the Vanities - 01/09/2011 08:16:42 PM 6020 Views

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