Big Bad Wolfe

John Sutherland

  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
    Cape, 659 pp, £11.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 224 02439 6

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is his 11th book but his first novel. Happily for him, it looks like being that publisher’s dream, a runaway best-seller which is also critically acclaimed. But I guess it will not, at the end of the day, be as highly ranked as the author’s new journalism (Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers), his polemics on aesthetics (From Bauhaus to Our House) or his American epic docufiction (The Right Stuff). One sees less a new career in The Bonfire of the Vanities than a sharp detour in a career which has already proved the most unpredictable in modern literature.

The plot of the The Bonfire of the Vanities suggest a powerful reason for its appeal: namely, an eerie topicality. At its simplest, it is a novel about the city of New York, an urban monster that devours its citizens. Wolfe’s hero is a WASP, Yale graduate, Wall street investment banker, called Sherman McCoy. Thirty-eight years old, and over-extended on a million a year, McCoy is a yuppie, to use a term Wolfe studiosly doesn’t (presumably because he disdains any neologisms but his own). McCoy, who secretly pictures himself as a ‘Master of the Universe’, lives with this designer wife and cute seven-year-old daughter in a Park Avenue apartment that has been featured in Architectural Digest. It is ‘the sort of apartment the thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York, and for that matter all over the World’. Raw American chauvinism has always been an active element in Wolfe’s literary make-up, and one may doubt whether the eskimo in his igloo, the bedouin in his tent or the Englishman in his semi really lust for deep green marble floors, Tiffany glassware, five-foot-wide walnut staircases, private lifts and faux-Sheraton cabinets that roll back to reveal television screens. But the zest of Wolfe’s depiction of modern times arises in largest part from his endearingly Steinbergian delusion that if the Wall Street banker is the master of the universe, Manhattan is its geographical centre.

While furtively picking up his mistress Maria Ruskin from Kennedy Airport, McCoy loses his way in the labyrinth of the South Bronx. A barrier of garbage and auto-detritus at an on-ramp forces his $48,000 black Mercedes roadster with its bucket seats to a halt. Such obstructions are – as street-wise New Yorkers evidently know – a standard means by which victims are set up for highway robbery, just as the innocuously wheedling approach (‘Can you spare five dollars?’) is the familiar disarming overture to vicious subway muggings. A couple of young blacks do indeed approach the stopped Sherman with a deceptively friendly ‘Yo! Need some help?’ and an omnious walk which Wolfe terms ‘the pimp roll’. Sherman feels as generations of blacks must have done when confronted with the white-sheeted lynch mob: ‘the one nearest him had on a silvery basket-ball warm-up jacket with CELTICS written across the chest ... He was no more than four or five steps away ... powerfully built ... His jacket was open ... a white T-shirt ... tremendous chest muscles ... a square face ... wide jaws ... a wide mouth ... What was that look? ... Hunter! ... Predator!’

Sherman panics, jumps in the passenger side of the car, Maria takes the wheel and they roar off, sideswiping the second of the young blacks. It’s more run and hit than hit and run. Nevertheless, the white couple nervously congratulate themselves on having gone into the jungle, fought the beast, and survived. They are disinclined to report the matter. Mrs McCoy and Mr Ruskin (an aged Jew, enriched by running charter flights to Mecca) would not be sympathetic. Nor, in the scale of New York crime, would an aborted robbery and some minor unintended battery matter all that much. Normally, such routine skirmishes in New York pass unregarded (particularly if they involve blacks doing violence to blacks). It is certainly not something to worry the Bronx legal authorities, with their 7000 arraignments a year and capacity for no more than 650 court cases. Wolfe’s book is full of such numbing factoids.

But Sherman is abnormally unlucky. At the nearest hospital, the injured black youth is neglected to death. He has a subdural haemorrhage, the doctors treat him for a sprained wrist. The victim, Henry Lamb (born it would seem for sacrifice), was in life a wimpish nonentity too timid to drop out of high school like the more enterprising 80 per cent of his peer group and his more vigorous companion in crime (a professional crack pedlar, as it turns out). Comatose and dying, the not entirely illiterate Lamb is martyred as an ‘honor student’ cut off in his prime, an upstanding credit to his family, his city and his race. The cause is taken up by a black leader, the Reverend Bacon, a hypocrite of Dickensian proportions, who is principally concerned to distract attention from the $350,000 given him for a day centre which he has secretly invested in McCoy’s securities firm, Pierce and Pierce.

A sodden British hack, Peter Fallow, who works for the depraved newspaper City Light, is assigned to the case of the white assassin who is supposedly being protected by friends in high places. (One of the more mordant truths proclaimed by this novel is that in high places there are no friends.) City Light is a daily rag given to such headlines as

SCALP
GRANDMA
THEN
ROB HER

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