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

The paper is owned by a British newspaper magnate, Sir Gerald Steiner, which is as close as Wolfe’s prudent libel lawyers have allowed him to get to Rupert Murdoch and the New York Post. For a New Yorker like Wolfe, Murdoch evidently rates as a public emergency scarcely less serious than Aids. (Oddly, the only PWA in the novel is an anaemic English poet, called Lord Aubrey Buffing. Wolfe dislikes Brits.)

A District Attorney up for re-election and a Jewish Mayor who needs the black vote get on the Henry Lamb bandwagon. (To be fair, Wolfe seems to dislike New York Jews and blacks even more than the British.) Sherman is hunted down and publicly exposed, largely because of his essentially decent inability to brazen things out. He is subsequently hounded, ratted on by his girlfriend, deserted by his wife, suspended on a wholly inadequate $100,000 p.a. by his employer, and eventually destroyed by the combined forces of corrupt journalism, corrupt ethnicity, corrupt law and corrupt municipal politics. A civil suit awards $12 million (which McCoy doesn’t have) to the comatose Lamb and his heirs. He loses the $3.2 million apartment which has been featured in Architectural Digest, his Globemaster credit card, his country house in Long Island, his wardrobe of $1800 suits (custom-tailored in England), his $650 New and Lingwood half-brogues, with capped toes. He is picketed daylong by the All People’s Solidarity Party and has his life threatened by the Gay Fist Strike Force. His appearances in court are routinely interrupted by political demonstrations in the courtroom branding him as the ‘Wall Street murderer’ and ‘capitalist killer’. McCoy is finally seen 13 months on as a ‘career defendant’ and a ruined man, no longer able to afford a lawyer, facing his second trial and eight to twenty-five years in prison for manslaughter (i.e. about twice what he would have got for premeditated murder). An ironic postscript in the form of a long pompously imperceptive article in the New York Times (Wolfe evidently dislikes the New York Times) informs us that Fallow has won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the Lamb case and is about to marry Sir Gerald Steiner’s daughter.

Two images hover like Goodyear blimps over The Bonfire of the Vanities. One is that of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (the dead black youth, for instance, lives in the improbably-named Edgar Allan Poe Towers public-housing project). The other image is that of Savonarola purging the luxury of Florence with his burning of the vanities. Wolfe’s novel has been hailed (notably by the Conservative columnist George Will) as the work of a contemporary Dickens. The more appropriate Victorian comparison is, I think, Thackeray. It is not fanciful to perceive in The Bonfire of the Vanities a rewriting for our days of Vanity Fair. Like Thackeray’s, Wolfe’s satire is ‘a declaration of war on the established order of things’. And in the style of Thackeray’s ‘How to live on nothing a year’ Wolfe offers at the centre of his black comedy a hilariously plausible accounting of how in New York you can go broke on $980,000 a year (‘the servants Bonita, Miss Lyons, Lucille the cleaning woman and Hobie the handyman came to $62,000 a year’).

Very simply, the basic contention of The Bonfire of the Vanities is that New York has gone to hell. The old balance of forces and estates by which WASP, Jew, Black and Catholic all worked towards the general well-being has broken down. The organic bonding that kept Wall Street, Park Avenue and the Bronx as some kind of metropolitan community no longer works. And, as the tragi-comedy of Sherman’s downfall indicates, the proof of New York’s moral decay is that the individual New Yorker can no longer expect justice as his right. In the first place, he’s only got a one-in-ten chance of a day in court. And even if he does get heard, political expediency and press-fomented lynch law will, if necessary, dictate the verdict. If as Wolfe’s novel alleges, the legal system and the expediencies of racial politics can no longer be kept separate, then the American Constitution is a dead letter in the five boroughs.

I say ‘proof’, but fiction can prove nothing. Nevertheless, Wolfe’s bleak vision of latter-day New York has been confirmed by public events since his writing the novel. (The Bonfire of the Vanities was first published, in somewhat different form, three years ago.) Foremost is the Wall Street crash of October 1987, a catastrophe neatly timed to coincide with the American publication of the book. The meltdown has duly burned off many of the grosser yuppie vanities which Wolfe chronicles. It was, in retrospect, extraordinarily prescient of him to have made his hero a Wall Street prince riding for a fall. More so as in the original version of the novel (as it began to emerge serially in summer 1984) Sherman McCoy was an author, enriched by the best-selling success of his novel A Man Cut in Pieces.

Another confirmation of Wolfe’s vision of a New York morally incapable of administering justice was the Bernard Goetz case. Goetz was the mild-looking subway traveller who when politely asked for five dollars by four black teenagers answered that he indeed had something for them, took out a handgun and proceeded to blast away, wounding three and leaving one crippled for life. His main defence was that he was threatened by the look in their eyes. (‘What was that look? ... Hunter! ... Predator!’) All this was horrific enough, but the legal consequences were – by civilised or other than New York standards – outrageous. It proved impossible to find a jury willing to convict Goetz of the offences he had clearly committed, such was white and black middle-class sympathy for the subway vigilante. Consequently, despite a damning video confession, Goetz was ultimately nailed on the picayune charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm. And, as the newspapers gleefully reported, the three of Goetz’s victims who remained ambulatory went on to commit felonies, some of which even by New York standards were unusually vicious. On this evidence, Wolfe’s ‘Jungle’ seems all too tame a word to describe the world of the Midtown commuter.

The most timely confirmation of Wolfe’s savage assertions in The Bonfire of the Vanities is the Howard Beach case, the sentences in which are just now being given out. On 19 December 1986, a car with three young black men in it broke down near Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens. The area is solidly white, and the three unfortunate trespassers went to a nearby pizza parlour. There they were observed by a white boy, Jon Lester, who alerted about a dozen of his buddies with the call to arms: ‘Niggers on the boulevard. Let’s go kill them.’ The white youths had been drinking, and they set about the blacks with tree limbs, a ‘metal object’ and baseball bats. One was badly beaten, another escaped with minor injuries, but the third was killed when he was pursued into traffic on a nearby expressway.

Had the offence been white on white, or particularly if it had been black on black, little official notice would have been taken. The young man’s death would have been written off as misadventure, or just another gangfight casualty. (In the nearby south-western section of Queens, which is solidly black, there were eighty drug-related killings last year, police estimate.) Any arrests would have ended with sentences plea-bargained into the nullity of probation and at best a couple of lines in the back pages of the metropolitan dailies. But given the explosive racial aspects of the affair, a show (or ‘bias’) trial was demanded – in the wake of the Goetz affair, with its implication that black life and limb comes cheaper than white.

At first, to the frustration of the Mayor and the press, it was impossible to get the black survivors to testify against their assailants, so suspicious were they of the Queens legal system. Two of the blacks had criminal records; it was alleged that the dead man was high on cocaine at the time of his fatal accident. Tremendous public interest in the case (relentlessly whipped up by the Daily News and the Post) provoked Governor Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor. Finally, three of the dozen white youths were charged with second-degree murder. Since the abolition of the death penalty, this is the most serious category of crime in the New York law book. After 12 days of deliberation by the jury, two of the defendants were convicted on the reduced charge of manslaughter. According to the Los Angeles Times (22 December 1987):

As the verdict was read, there were shouts of joy then gasps in the huge courtroom. Three people, two whites and one black, stood and yelled ‘Murderers!’ They were dragged from the courtroom by security guards who later said the protesters had identified themselves as members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Other spectators began to raise banners, and to maintain order, the judge immediately declared a recess.

The confusion is uncannily reminiscent of that with which Wolfe concludes The Bonfire of the Vanities, as were the backlash demonstrations which broke out all over the city immediately the Howard Beach manslaughter verdict was delivered. For two hours, the main subway stations in Manhattan were paralysed by organised chaos during the peak-travelling time of the evening, and the Brooklyn Bridge was closed for three hours by indignant black demonstrators, protesting the ‘leniency’ of white justice. Effectively, central New York was brought to a standstill. Active in managing the protests was the Rev. Al Sharpton, ‘a civil rights activist’ and Brooklyn minister. (Since the demonstrations, the Reverend Sharpton has been accused by New York Newsday of being for many years a secret FBI fink, informing on his fellow black radicals.) In the interim between verdict and sentencing, the Mayor of New York wrote to the judge demanding a ‘maximum sentence’. No fuddy-duddy scruples about subjudice for Ed Koch. The absolute maximum thirty years was duly given the first defendant, 18-year-old Lester, on 22 January. It was at least twice what he could have expected on the original charge of second-degree murder. And had he, like the dead victim, been black, the chances are he would have walked out of the courtroom free to wave his baseball bat at whomever he pleased.

On the day of the Howard Beach verdict, the New York Times published a leading editorial which for sanctimoniousness deserves an entry in The Guinness Book of Records. It opened: ‘Finally, the Howard Beach case showed New York criminal justice at its best.’ After a few hundred words of gloating self-congratulation on the Daniel come to judgment theme, the editorial concluded: ‘All over urban America, economic shifts, crime and disintegration of neighbourhoods feed racist fears and reactions. That was the atmosphere in which the Howard Beach tragedy began. The trial ended by showing a city at its best, upholding civilised values.’ It would be hard, even for a satirist like Wolfe, to conceive a more dishonest or deluded gloss on an ugly set of facts. Anyone who could find a city at its best upholding civilised values in the Howard Beach affair could find civic amenity in Beirut.

Two options seem to be weighed by Wolfe, in the face of his hellish hometown. One is gloomy, the other is unbearably gloomy. The first option is that New Yorkers should confront their end in the spirit of Poe’s ball-goers besieged by the red death: that is, they should dress up, banquet, fornicate, make merry and go out in high old aristocratic style. Wolfe’s caressing and obsessive descriptions of the good things of life – fashion clothes, furnishings, customised cars, luxurious apartments – suggest that he is strongly drawn to the Totentanz conclusion.

The other option is so anachronistic that Wolfe seems scarcely able to bring himself to utter it: namely, Sixties ‘fire next time’, political activism. The last we see of Sherman is his raising a fist in a black power salute. The gesture has a private meaning for his ex-wife, but it is also political. The fist that Sherman raises is bruised. He has evidently whipped the ass of two blacks who tried to molest him in the cells below the court. The yuppie wimp has turned, and is now a big bad radicalised man.

I say this recalls Sixties youth rebellion. But there is an older New York tradition which is evoked. Like Norman Mailer, Wolfe has a nostalgic hankering for the old brawling Irish politics of 19th-century New York: the Irish are, as it happens, the only New York ethnic group who are not slandered by this novel. A hundred years ago, Irish politicians routinely took charge of City Hall by street fighting and the power of the fist. The arch-exponent of New York knuckle politics was John Morrisey (1831-78). Born in Tipperary, Morrisey came to New York as an immigrant worker in 1848, fought his way to the heavyweight championship of the world in 1858, and parlayed his pugilistic prowess into a dominating position in city and state politics. If I read Wolfe’s somewhat diffident conclusion correctly, he seems to say that if New York must necessarily be a violent city (and history suggests that this is the case), then let it at least be the healthy fisticuffs of the fighting Irish. It’s a romantic conclusion which is in line with Wolfe’s extravagant idolatry of heroic Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and his distaste for the passive ‘spam in the can’ Apollo astronauts.

I have compared Wolfe to Thackeray, and others have compared The Bonfire of the Vanities to Dickens. There is a further connection with Victorian fiction, in that The Bonfire of the Vanities is almost unique among serious novels of the present day in having been serialised in its entirety before publication in volume form. Wolfe initially published the work in instalments in the rock-fashion magazine Rolling Stone from summer 1984 to summer 1985. He has taken the opportunity to make some changes between the two printed versions of the narrative, the most striking of which (the alteration of Sherman’s profession) has been noted. There are some other interesting revisions. Wolfe originally intended to make McCoy’s betrayed wife Judy more prominent in the narrative and whole chapters dealing with her have been dropped. Largely dropped as well was a vulturous real-estate broker who lives in the same co-op building as the McCoys (she does in fact pop up late in the volume version of the novel as the only neighbour to offer the besieged Sherman any sympathy, for her own mercenary motives. She is last seen suing him for her 6 per cent seller’s commission). Wolfe also changed his conception of the journalist Peter Fallow. A seedy fellow in Rolling Stone, Fallow is reborn in the book version of the novel as unregenerately drunken, but physically a mirror image of the elegant Wolfe himself. Maria, the mistress, is Italian in Rolling Stone and Southern American in the novel version.

A collation of the texts of The Bonfire of the Vanities is doubtless already lined up as some graduate student’s project. As interesting is Wolfe’s rediscovery of basic tricks of the Victorian writing trade. As Kathleen Tillotson notes in Novels of the 1840s, one of the principal problems for serialists like Dickens and Thackeray was writing to the ‘two unities’ of the part and the whole. It was not something easily mastered and, to be honest, Wolfe in his turn, like the young Dickens, has not entirely successfully balanced his narrative. In volume form, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a somewhat indigestible morsel. It is set out as 31 set-piece chapters. Each has a typically florid Wolfian title such as ‘The Day-Glo Eel’, ‘Tawkin Irish’, ‘Styrofoam Peanuts’, and each is best read as a separate short story or article of on-scene New York reportage. Outstanding, and typically digressive, is ‘Death New York Style’, which describes Maria Ruskin’s aged, cuckolded spouse expiring in the posh La Boue d’Argent restaurant just before the arrival of ‘Madame Tacaya’ (i.e. someone very like Imelda Marcos). To prevent an awkward confrontation at the entrance, the cadaver is hastily carted through the dining room to the ladies’s restroom, there to be heaved through a window onto the street: ‘The diners couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Ruskin’s striken face and white gut were now being paraded by their very tables ... the grim remains of the joys of the flesh. It was as if some plague, which they all thought had been eradicated at last, had sprung up in their midst, more virulent than ever.’ Like much in The Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s a magnificent blend of black Poe-like Gothicism and way-of-the-world high comedy. But it has little to do with the main business of the story, and one feels that some more practice is needed to make Wolfe perfect in the constructive arts of serialised fiction.