Monday, October 8, 2007

"The Bonfire of the Vanities" at 20

It's hard to believe, but 20 years ago this month, that enfant terrible of American letters, Tom Wolfe, published his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. It tells the story of rich Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy who has it all - lovely wife, lovely daughter, Yale pedigree, and a huge Park Avenue apartment - but who loses it all when he gets involved in a hit and run in the Bronx. Throw in an awful mistress, a media-starved DA, his career hungry ADA, plus a British alcoholic reporter looking to redeem himself, and the story becomes, as Mr Wolfe would call it, "a real rhubarb."

The defining document of the 1980s, Bonfire presents a nightmarish NYC - where greed, vanity, crime, narcissism, recklessness, and plain old nastiness reigned. It was, fortuitously enough, published around the same time as the big Wall Street crash of 1987 and it became the morality tale of its times. Amazingly, this novel has aged little - it's still funny, fresh, and timely. In many ways, Bonfire was prophetic: pre-OJ, pre-Monica, pre-Paris, pre-Anna Nicole, this book understood what made a story sensational and gave it legs. And if anything, the "vanity" of NYC in 1987 was, by today's standards, quite tame. The world of Masters of the Universe and Social X-rays is more outrageous than ever.

Always a fun read, revisiting Bonfire on its 20th is a good idea. And if you haven't read it, please note: while not a roman a clef, more than one or two characters is based on real people still alive and famous today. Most notably:

Peter Fallow = Christopher Hitchens
Sir Gerald Steiner = Rupert Murdoch
Reverend Bacon = Al Sharpton

A couple of more notes:

1. Do not watch the 1990 movie of Bonfire starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis. It's a travesty.

2. Check out Wikipedia's entry on where the title The Bonfire of the Vanities came from.

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