Low Expectations

The Bonfire of the Vanities

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

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe; drawing by David Levine

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…

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