For many years The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel about race and money in New York City, has been called the definitive novel of the 1980s. It was a smash hit upon publication in 1987 and earned Wolfe, already known for his nonfiction books The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, raves. But is it a garbage novel?
The first mark against Bonfire is that it purports to show how problematic race relations were in New York City in the 1980s, yet it has no characters of color. Reverend Bacon, a corrupt spin on an Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson-type character, is the closest the novel comes to having a black character and he’s barely in it at all. Instead, Bonfire treats African Americans like dangerous “others,” viewing them only through the prism of what its white characters think. That they don’t think anything good is part of the satire but I can’t help thinking that it’s extremely problematic not to allow them representation. This is exacerbated if you listen to the audio, as I did, because the only black voices you hear are performed as guttural growls.
To be fair to the audio, stereotyping by voice is actually common in this book. If your attention lapsed for a second, you could instantly figure out who was in the scene just by listening to the voices used. If you heard the narrator’s normal voice or a bad parody of a Yale accent, you were in the main storyline about Sherman McCoy, a bond trader who fancies himself a “Master of the Universe” until a joyride with his mistress ends in a hit and run in the Bronx. If everyone sounds like a wise guy–a bad parody of The Godfather–the cops or DA had taken center stage. And if you heard a bad parody of a British Downton Abbey-esque accent, it was the journalists. I probably wouldn’t have noticed how the characters were so forcefully grouped–and how similar the people within those groups are–without the audiobook’s narrator clueing me into it.
Mixed throughout the upper-class characters are a range of southerners. I lived in New York for many years and never heard as many heavy southern accents as Tom Wolfe appears to believe exist there, and it’s hard to tell if this is his way of inserting himself into the story or not.
Wolfe does have some smart, acidic observations sprinkled throughout. Part of me feels bad calling this book problematic because the ways in which it’s problematic weren’t commonly recognized until more recently. Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 1987 when it was common to filter the experience of others through at least one white character. Driving Miss Daisy, a movie about an old white lady (slowly) learning to respect her black driver as a human being, famously beat Do the Right Thing, a fiery exploration of race and anger made by a black man and starring mostly black people, for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1989. A year later that prize went to Dances With Wolves, a movie about white Kevin Costner trying to save Indians.
But does not knowing better at the time excuse problematic representation? Consider that women are more visible than African Americans in this novel but aside from a treatise on how women are disrespected as they age, they are just as unknown and unexplored. The only female character who can claim to have a significant role is the ultimate gold-digger.
If you are rolling your eyes because I’m wringing my hands about representation in a satire, calm down and consider that this satire is alarmingly poorly written. First of all, it’s much longer than it has to be. I could go through and remove entire scenes from this book and the plot wouldn’t suffer at all. The first third in particular indulgently refuses to get to any point. Then there are numerous plot holes and infuriating pieces of plotting that only happen to move the plot where Wolfe wants it to go. For example, when McCoy is finally arrested the police know perfectly well that a woman was in the car with him, yet they don’t ask him a single question about who she was–and he doesn’t volunteer any information.
This is meant to be part of the satire: the police and the DA only care about the case because the black citizens of the Bronx are publicly forcing them to care. Having Sherman in custody is a token gesture to shut them up. As for Sherman, the entire book is meant to laugh at him because he thinks he’s a Master of the Universe but he has absolutely no skills in the real world. He can’t even explain to his daughter what he does for a living. But how is it possible that only gossip columnists care about the identity of the mystery woman? And once her identity is revealed in the newspaper, she disappears out of the country and the only person who notices is Sherman–because he’s the only person trying to talk to her.
When she does come back to the US the DA finally decides they should talk to her, but only to force her to corroborate the case they are building in court. This, again, is meant to be part of the satire, but here’s the infuriating plot hole (spoilers ahead): Sherman goes to visit her wearing a wire to get her to confess that she was driving the car. Being inept at life, he fails, but she tells him that the DA is trying to force her to lie on the stand. And he gets it ON TAPE. Both Sherman and his lawyer treat this episode like a total failure since they couldn’t get her to admit to driving the car, completely oblivious to the bombshell they have. Had I been holding a physical copy of the book instead of listening to the audio, I might have thrown it across the room in exasperation. The trial continues for another hundred pages (until Sherman is at his most dire moment plotwise) before his lawyer trots out the audio for the judge as a surprise “get out of jail free” card. Why would he sit on this information for a hundred pages? When did he realize what he had on his hands? It doesn’t matter because delaying the reveal makes for a more satisfying courtroom climax. (end spoilers)
You may be rolling your eyes because I’m worried about plotting in a satire, but pick up Jonathan Swift sometime and see how wonderfully well-written satire can be. Yes, it requires great leaps in logic, but deliberately clumsy writing is not a must. Then consider the poor plotting and editing and layer it on top of the problematic representation. While Bonfire of the Vanities has its strengths, it’s far from a great book and it hasn’t aged well at all. I wouldn’t say it’s bad enough to be called garbage but I also wouldn’t argue if someone else did.