Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

I started this book in August and it has been a fabulous read. I knew it would be a big book to tackle, but it was absolutely worth it. Tom Wolfe is the ultimate scribe of American life, and in this book he pegs the fall of a Wall Street tycoon with such accuracy that, as a reader, you cannot help but feel the pain yourself as his life falls apart.

The book takes place during the stock market boom of the late 80s — I am not really sure — but it has a timeless quality to the story. As a reader, we follow the journey of Sherman McCoy, a wall street investment banker who has made it big — so big that he is consumed by his own vanity. An affair with another woman takes an unfortunate turn of events when the couple get lost in the Bronx in Sherman’s expensive Mercedes. Through a chain reaction, the car strikes a young black man and the two flee the scene — and thus the downfall is born.

I don’t want to give too much away as usual, but the title itself signals the idea that our protagonist will have a major downfall. I must say, even though Sherman’s character is depicted such that you are supposed to hate him, I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic for his plight. I think Wolfe balances this conflict so well, and the writing is just brilliant.

My favorite scene occurred when Sherman is arrested and taken through the process of being booked and submitted before he posts bail. It is the most painfully descriptive segment and I found myself literally cringing while I read the painful words. I think that was the moment of the Bonfire from which the book gets its name, and Sherman even refers to the ordeal as a death of sort.

Anyway, this is a wonderful, wonderful book. The writing is truly masterful, the story alluring, and the end iconically Wolfe. There are elements of racial tension, the corruption of the justice system, mastery of the personality of Wall Street bankers, millionaire housewives, and upper echelon living. I always feel when I read Wolfe’s books that he describes characters so perfectly, as if he were pulling the very descriptions out of my own mind. For example, he calls the millionaire housewives that have dieted and exercised their way into the required physical size “x-rays” — this is so true and dead on.

I still maintain that I am Charlotte Simmons is my favorite Wolfe book, but I do think this one runs a close second. I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

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2 thoughts on “Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

  1. If I were to guess, I Am Charlotte Simmons was the first Wolfe novel you read. I think it’s interesting how most people (myself included) often anchor their favorite with their first when it comes to books, movies…well, everything.

    Many people of a certain age say Bananas is their favorite Woody Allen movie, though most critics would disagree. I understand also a younger generation of people also like the The Simpsons from season 10 and up more than seasons 1-9. This concerns me deeply.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong and Charlotte Simmons subject matter just spoke to you more than the others. Either way, I read A Man in Full first and still think it’s the best he’s done.

    • That is a very interesting perspective! I did read Simmons first. And I actually paused for a second because I loved A Man in Full a great deal as well. I guess I just really clicked with Simmons because I read it during college. Makes a big difference!

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