The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
|The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Robert James
|Summary: Superb novel brilliantly satirises New York in the 80's, with a cast of compelling characters.
|Date: January 2010
In his own mind, bond trader Sherman McCoy is a 'Master of the Universe'. He has a pleasant wife, a beautiful mistress, and a sweet six-year-old daughter. Henry Lamb is a black student from the projects. Under normal circumstances, it's clear that McCoy's world and Lamb's world would never overlap. But when McCoy and his mistress Maria Ruskin end up lost in the Bronx, and an accident leads to Lamb being hit by McCoy's Mercedes, a chain of events start which will lead to his downfall.
I've read several of the non-fiction books about Wall Street in the 1980s, such as the superb Liar's Poker, and so the world of Sherman McCoy was immediately familiar to me. However, while from my hazy background knowledge of this book, I was expecting a lot more about the machinations of Wall Street, I was surprised at how little a part McCoy's job plays in the novel. Instead, it's the characters who are wonderfully memorable, especially the anti-hero Sherman, who is a pitiable character simply because he seems incapable of choosing the correct advice to take. The other three main characters are also excellently drawn, all of them just as flawed in their own way as McCoy is – alcoholic English journalist Peter Fallow, who sees the case as an opportunity of a lifetime, Assistant DA Larry Kramer, who is trying to prosecute McCoy to impress his new girlfriend Shelly Thomas, and Reverend Bacon, a Harlem religious leader determined to use Lamb's case as a cause célèbre.
But while these three are compelling characters in their own right, as are a host of others such as McCoy's lawyer Tommy Killian and the irascible judge Kovitsky, Wolfe never spends too long on any of them before taking us back to McCoy and his rapid spiral downwards. Starting before the car accident, when he accidentally calls his wife instead of his mistress and unthinkingly uses the wrong name on the phone, his fall from grace begins slowly but rapidly accelerates as Fallow and Kramer close in on him. After a fairly slow start as we get to know the characters, the novel's pace is a major asset and hundreds of pages flew by as I raced through it towards the end so that I could find out what happened in the climax.
Wolfe's writing is dazzling at times, particularly in his descriptions of New York, and his dialogue is fantastic, with the words of Judge Kovitsky in particular practically leaping off the page. There are several laugh-out-loud scenes, particularly towards the end, with one in a restaurant being absolutely brilliant. All in all, this is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys gripping character-driven fiction, although it's probably a good idea to make sure you don't have anything too urgent to do for a few days due to the book being both long and hard to put down!
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe but we did have reservations about the book.
For another classic book about New York, this time in the 1970s, I'm going to recommend Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin. You might also enjoy Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. It is quite explicit, but you might enjoy I Take You by Eliza Kennedy. We also liked The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner and Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe at Amazon.com.
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