Picks and Pans Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

updated 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Tom Wolfe

Pop literature's King of Sting—the man who offended liberals with Radical Chic, blacks with Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, the modern art world with The Painted Word—has concocted a brilliant send-up of New York City in his first novel. Wolfe scrubs the city's hypocrisies and pretensions in humor as black as Manhattan soot. His adroit plot revolves around Sherman McCoy, a 38-year-old Yalie who is a hotshot bond salesman at a Wall Street investment-banking firm. (The noise in McCoy's office, Wolfe writes, "was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market.") Wife Judy, 40, is considerably more interested in interior design and in scaling Manhattan's social skyscrapers than in Sherman. On a tryst one evening with his mistress, McCoy takes a wrong turn and ends up in the fear pocket of the city, the South Bronx. A ramp is blocked by a tire, and McCoy gets out of his Mercedes to remove it; two black youths start walking toward the car. McCoy's girlfriend Maria Ruskin slides over into the driver's seat; he bolts into the passenger's side, and as they are making their getaway Maria accidentally hits one of the blacks. Ruskin, the young wife of an elderly rich man, refuses to report the incident, but later McCoy is arrested. There is a deeper dimension to this novel than there is in any of Wolfe's journalism. But his reportorial experience informs his exploration of how the criminal justice system and the media—"the maggots and the flies"—can destroy a basically decent person. Fans of the author's distinctive word-dance style won't be disappointed either. (Of the decline in the quality of life in New York City, the author bellows: "Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It's the Third World down there!...the Bronx is finished for you!... And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside and Forest Hills?...You don't think the future knows how to cross a bridge?") Wolfe comes across here as a softer, gentler observer who is capable of understanding as well as lampooning. When McCoy is forced to tell his aristocratic father that he is going to be arrested, there is an epiphany: "Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later. For the first time he realized that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps, love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life." Although he occasionally lapses into borrowing Wolfe-isms from his journalism (Judy McCoy is "starved...to near-perfection"), the author has been careful to keep his elbows in for this debut. He has toned down some of the onomatopoeic rampages that marked the first version of Bonfire, which originally was produced under deadline pressure and published as installments in Rolling Stone. Wolfe, in fact, has completely rewritten the book, though the reader will occasionally still stumble over such words as, "Hehhessssgggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" These are small flaws in a work that is lively and full of insight. Bonfire illumines the modern madness that is New York in the 1980s with the intense precision of a laser beam. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $19.95)

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