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Low Expectations

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 659 pp., $19.95

Authors are not responsible for what even their friendliest critics say about them, and Tom Wolfe shouldn’t be blamed for George Will’s statement that Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is “Victorian, even Dickensian” in its scope and its “capacity to convey and provoke indignation.” Both Dickens and Wolfe, to be sure, write social comedy of a broad, even outrageous, theatricality, enlarging social observation into drama, or melodrama, in which conflicting human desires suggest pathological disturbances within the body politic. But Dickens also had the artist’s saving interest in mystery. He understood how to hold his reader by concealing the connections between characters and events just as long as possible, and he knew that in serious fiction even caricatures should be hard to see all the way around, that they can suggest more than their assigned parts require.

Tom Wolfe has no discernible interest in mystery. Since his characters must mean what he wants them to mean, they can exist only on the outside—in their clothes, their accents, their living arrangements or colleges or cars, the places where they work and play—and the fun for the author is to read us their IDs and spot them right away for what they are. They are, by and large, people who pronounce “talk” as “tawk,” or wear “half-brogued New & Lingwood shoes with the close soles and the beveled insteps,” or cultivate overdeveloped sternocleidomastoid muscles.

Wolfe feels free to mock characters whose souls seem to be subsumed in such surface details, yet without their surfaces he would be at a loss to tell us who they are. When in Great Expectations the newly gentrified Pip entertains Joe Gargery in London, the awkwardness of the occasion is pointed up by the way Joe’s hat insists on falling off the mantelpiece, but while we may be sure that Joe has worn the wrong kind of hat, the meaning is not in the hat or in its style but in how both men use it—Joe by endlessly fumbling with it, Pip by watching it so impatiently—as a way of withholding some vulnerable part of themselves from a reunion that embarrasses them both, at the time, and deeply shames the wiser Pip, who describes the event long after it has taken place. There is nothing like this in Wolfe’s book.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of Sherman McCoy (Buckley, St. Paul’s, Yale), who at thirty-eight is “going broke on a million dollars a year!” McCoy is the star bond trader for a leading New York investment banking firm (probably he would be making a good deal more than a million, but never mind), but his incompetence at personal finance has put him deeply in the red. One can understand the house in Southampton, the four servants, the private school tuitions, the cars and clothes and dinner parties, but it is a puzzle why someone not limitlessly rich, who knows about money, would buy a co-op in a building that forbids mortgages, so that he has to take out a short-term personal loan, interest nondeductible, for almost $2 million. Still, there are at least a few dumbbells on Wall Street, and one can feel a little sorry for fatuous weaklings like McCoy who fancy themselves “Masters of the Universe.”

Wolfe’s governing subject, the decline of the old-line WASPs in crude times, requires that McCoy be sprung from old money, born to expect privilege without having to work or fight for it. His father in fact is the retired “chief executive officer”—for which read “senior partner”?—of the major corporate law firm of Dunning Sponget & Leach. Yet Sherman doesn’t think like someone familiar with wealth and power:

Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening—and he was among the victors! He lived on Park Avenue, the street of dreams! He worked on Wall Street, fifty floors up, for the legendary Pierce & Pierce, overlooking the world! He was at the wheel of a $48,000 roadster with one of the most beautiful women in New York—no Comp. Lit. scholar, perhaps, but gorgeous—beside him! A frisky young animal! He was of that breed whose natural destiny it was…to have what they wanted!

The mind being burlesqued here can’t be Sherman McCoy’s; no one of his background would trouble with the rapt clichés of the overwrought newcomer, any more than he would have Sherman’s self-consciousness about the “statement” that his clothes make. Even Jay Gatsby would be embarrassed at having to say such lines.

At any rate, Sherman, deep in such out-of-town delights, misses the Manhattan turnoff from the Triborough Bridge and gets himself and his frisky passenger (his mistress, Maria Ruskin) thoroughly lost in the South Bronx. Encountering two black youths whose intentions seem dubious, they flee, with Maria at the wheel, while sensing that the car may have struck one of the kids. Fearing discovery of their affair by their spouses, they decide not to report what they’re not sure was an injury. But in fact they have seriously hurt a respectable teen-ager, and from that event issues Sherman’s nightmare introduction to the world ordinary people inhabit.

Under pressure from the Reverend Reginald Bacon, a politically potent black activist who feeds privately at the troughs of public and private assistance programs, the police trace the car to McCoy. The prospect of a “great white defendant” is of course grist for many mills besides Bacon’s: the Bronx district attorney is facing reelection in a hugely nonwhite, nonrich borough; one of his assistants is anxious to impress his new girlfriend with his courtroom prowess; the victim’s companion is only too ready to perjure himself to beat a drug rap; a seedy British journalist at a sensational tabloid, The City Light, needs a hot story to save his job; even Maria, after first fleeing to Italy, agrees to testify that McCoy, not she, was driving. Sherman is arrested and booked, indicted, reviled in the press and in various mass demonstrations, and finally brought to trial for reckless endangerment and leaving the scene of an accident, losing along the way his wife, his job, the big deal that was to pay off his debts, and, worst of all, his illusions of mastery.

All of this allows Wolfe, in propria persona or through the mind of Sherman McCoy, to say a lot of unpleasant things about most of the residents of New York—WASPs, blacks, Hispanics, Jews (especially rich ones and Hasidim), gays and lesbians, liberals, Brits, social activists, urban (but not national) politicians, social climbers, journalists, smokers and drinkers, faddists about food and clothes, the fat and the thin, exercisers, people with New York accents, and so on. He tends to like the police, criminal lawyers (especially ones who are sharp dressers and went to Yale Law School), Art Deco, and judges, but the world pictured is mainly a theater of malice, and it seems tempting to ask why the book has sold so many copies. No doubt many of its buyers are metropolitan people ready to laugh at the pretentious follies of, if not exactly themselves, then people like the ones they know. But elsewhere in the Republic some may be reading The Bonfire of the Vanities more innocently, as the morality play its title suggests it to be. Do such readers, not knowing people like those Wolfe describes (and glad of it), imagine that the book, like a glossy magazine or a TV show, gives believable glimpses of the rich and famous, along with some of the poor and dangerous who are equally stimulating to the powers of moral censure?

Sherman McCoy’s career traces an interesting curve. He begins as a weak, cosseted fool, a man without talent or conviction who (like many others) is blessed by living in a time when one can do quite well without having either. He’s not guilty, or not very guilty, of anything but hubris, yet a society in which the worst have usurped the power that once belonged to Sherman’s class makes sure that he will pay dearly for being white and privileged. His shame and fear in the luridly described holding pens at Bronx Criminal Court seem to him at first a kind of death, but what really begins to die is his assumption that he can live as he wants to without effort.

As the book nears its end he starts to fight back, telling off those of his own circle who have ignored or exploited his disaster, betraying the mistress who has already betrayed him by taping her self-incriminating conversation, and finally, in an exciting but preposterous climax, when a rabid courtroom mob of blacks and do-gooders attack both him and the courageous judge who has dismissed the charges against him, claiming his manhood through redemptive physical violence:

That sets the mob off. Yagggghhh!… Ged’im!…Ged’im!…Shoving past the court officers. Brucie pushes the tall black man with the earring. He goes reeling to one side. All at once he’s directly in front of Sherman. He stares. He’s amazed. Face to face! And now what? he just stares. Sherman’s transfixed…terrified…Now! He ducks, pivots on his hip, and turns his back—now!it begins now! He wheels about and drives his fist into the man’s solar plexus.

Ooooo!”….

Sherm!” It’s Quigley, talking between gasps. “You cold-cocked…that cocksucker…Sherm! You…cold-cocked him!”

Sank to the floor. Doubled up. The earring dangled. Now!and I triumphed. He’s consumed with cold fear—they’ll get me!and soaring anticipation. Again! I want to do it again!

Whatever this ugly moment means—the true machismo of the paramilitary racist groups? the hopeless dream of glory that every little person knows but very seldom tries to enact?—it seems clear that for once Wolfe has imagined another mind very well. He knows that the significant detail isn’t striking the blow but relishing it afterward. Whatever the author intends, I’d be surprised if there weren’t readers out there for whom the moment represents a welcome stirring of counterrevolution, wiping out the space in which stand law, sympathy, generosity, patience, between a resentful “us” and a “them” who have taken away what we once had. Another Sherman McCoy emerges here, the real McCoy, perhaps, a feral fellow who won’t be pushed around anymore, as is confirmed at the end of the book, when McCoy appears for his second arraignment, for manslaughter, wearing not a $2,000 suit but “an open-necked sport shirt, khaki pants, and hiking shoes.” The outfit might signal a call to arms to those who want to hear one.

Power has always been Wolfe’s subject. When, as in his earlier journalism, power took the form of populist cultural power subverting established taste from below—in the rock music industry, for example, car customizers, surfers, or druggies—he could write from his strongest position, laughing at his readers for fearing “vulgar” vitality even while knowing himself that it was vulgar, and ludicrous too. When the material becomes more overtly political, however, as in Radical Chic, and now in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the case is somewhat altered and the laughter grows nasty and the message obvious. Here is his portrait of a charmless Jewish assistant DA musing on the consoling power of his office:

In that instant…his scuffed attaché case meant nothing, nor did his clodhopper shoes nor his cheap suit nor his measly salary nor his New York accent nor his barbarisms and solecisms of speech. For in that moment he had something that these Wasp counselors, these immaculate Wall Street partners…would never know and never feel the inexpressible pleasure of possessing. And they would…swallow with fear when and if their time came…. It was the power of the government over the freedom of its subjects. To think of it in the abstract made it seem so theoretical and academic, but to feel it…well, the poet has never sung of that ecstasy or even dreamed of it, and no prosecutor, no judge, no cop, no income-tax auditor will ever enlighten him, for we dare not even mention it to one another, do we?—and yet we feel it and we know it every time they look at us with those eyes that beg for mercy or, if not mercy, Lord, dumb luck or capricious generosity. (Just one break!)

Wolfe enjoys scaring the libertarian in us with the spectacle of government secretly licking its chops; but I suppose that any form of power feels something like this when it’s consciously exercised (as fortunately it more often is not), as employers, teachers, pastors, plumbers, parents, athletes, and rioters probably could testify. And even if public employees relish their power more, I doubt that it’s the differences between them and their victims in costume and speech habits that set off their ecstasies. (Wolfe in fact has to cheat a little here—those “clodhopper shoes” appear to be the same ones this character wore early in the book, when they were described as Johnston & Murphy business shoes he was afraid to wear on the subway, where their evident costliness might attract muggers.) The passage expresses not authentic malice in a civil servant but a projection onto him of the anxieties “superior” people may feel about how someone potentially hostile and dangerous is perceiving them.

Wolfe manages to have class hostility both ways. The old power of the WASP “establishment” is, he says, now dispossessed without its quite knowing it; New York and places like it are in the hands of the sans-culottes, ethnic whites and (now) nonwhites who have learned how to manipulate and profit from the system. It’s a good joke on any WASP who didn’t already know this, but the “indignation” George Will praises Wolfe for provoking may not be as healthily self-critical as Will supposes. He reads the book as saying that “flocking to Wall Street…is…unworthy of ‘the sons of the great universities, those legatees of Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, William James,…inheritors of the lux and the veritas.’ ” It is true that Wolfe says this—though there may not be nearly so many Sherman McCoys in present-day Wall Street trading rooms as he suggests—but his book seems to me in touch with other kinds of indignation, too, and far less pious ones.

Yet The Bonfire of the Vanities probably isn’t the ” ‘conservative’ novel” Will has been hoping for, or indeed a political novel at all. The depth and acuity of Wolfe’s politics are suggested by his quoting the old joke that “a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested,” which of course reads as well the other way around. His main interest seems better represented by something Sherman McCoy tells his young daughter when he tries to prepare her for the news that he has been arrested: “There are bad people who want to believe bad things about other people.” Tom Wolfe thrives on saying bad things about other people to people he suspects are pretty bad themselves. This game can be entertaining. The Bonfire of the Vanities is at least somewhat wittier than the novels of Sidney Sheldon and less sentimental than those of Jimmy Breslin. But it should not be taken seriously, and it has nothing to do with Dickens.

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