The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of the most excoriating depictions of an age that I have ever read, like the longest article ever featured on the Daily Mail website, peering constantly as only a good novel can behind closed doors, and inside the thoughts and ken of each of its characters, or shall we call them victims. For what makes each of Wolfe’s characters so honest, recognisable and dislikeable is their mirrors to ourselves. What makes the novel so intense and wonderful, so brightly burning a bonfire, is the traction with which Wolfe expounds upon the voyeurism and wide-open discontent of the Bronx mobs reflected and highlighted by the narcissism and privacy of the rich and the few which is torn wide open by politics, electioneering and the press.
“One thing Kramer had learned within two weeks as an assistant DA in the Bronx was that 95 per cent, perhaps 98 per cent, were truly guilty. The caseload was so overwhelming, you didn’t waste time trying to bring the marginal cases forward, unless the press was on your back. They hauled in guilt by the ton, those blue-and-orange vans out there on Walton Avenue. But the poor bastards behind the wire mesh barely deserved the term criminal, if by criminal you had in mind some romantic notion of someone who has a goal and seeks to achieve it through some desperate way outside the law. No, they were simpleminded incompetents, most of them, and they did unbelievably stupid, vile things.”
This passage is like a Wolfian blue print for New York society, perhaps any society. Every echelon of it seems equally stupid, equally vile in its relationship with money, its relationship with the city and the relationships between the people within it. Wolfe has a Dickensian capacity for describing filth:
“he was paralysed with fear and confusion. Across the way, a Latino was pulling the meat out of his sandwich and throwing it on the floor. The Latino had begun to eat the bread by itself – and his eyes were on Sherman. They were looking at him … in this human pen … yellow lunch meat, bread, Saran Wrap, plastic cups … cockroaches!”
The Bonfire of the Vanities is not a crime novel, it is not a finance novel, it is not a novel about the excesses of bankers or bond traders or the incompetencies of police forces or the charm of women or the virility of men – it is far less concentrated than that: it is a novel about the desperate stupidity to which we are each confined by our own experiences, our own discoveries, our own limitations and from which we cannot ascend except perhaps alone or in a small groups of like minded individuals. The mentality of the many is by far the most limited, it is the most limiting. The seeming madness of the ending of the book is a reflection of the madness of the mob, the madness and limitation that comes from the mob following signs presented to them, following them without criticism or cynicism enough to know that they are flawed. The followers of Reverend Bacon, blind to his corruption. Abe Weiss, the follower of his career, himself bonded to the whim of a mob who find their moral compass in the emphases of others and the impressions of reporters.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a fantastic book for today, thirty years after it was written, because it accurately captures New York’s broad social spectrum and at each level exposes and eviscerates its flaws – the weird manifestations of vanity at every social strata – flaws and vanities many of which are mine. This is one of the best books I have read this year – a book to haul me back to reading with a slap after months of apathy and self-desertion and that was something that has been coming far too long.