Daniel's Reviews > The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
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Feb 28, 12

Read in November, 2006

Tom Wolfe knows how to do his research. In his earlier, nonfiction works, he demonstrates his capacity to observe and synthesize information from even the most chaotic of situations. This is his first work of fiction, and his critical and all-absorbing eye works overtime; no detail is too small, no element is too minute. This work is saturated with timeless authenticity. It is intricate, impressive, and exhaustive.

Exhausting, too.

I admire the virtuosity of this book -- its scope, ambitions, and insights. But these admirable qualities are subsumed by an avalanche of detail. Wolfe amassed a titanic amount of information about New York in the 80's, and instead of carefully parcelling those tid-bits out in a way to delicately suggest the satire he is aiming for, he decided to include every, single, solitary thing he learned. The story here is secondary to the scenery.

Speaking of story: Sherman McCoy, "Master of the Universe," a Park Avenue bond trader with a massive bank account (and an ego and debt to match) is embroiled in a political whirlwind when he and his mistress are the cause of a possibly fatal accident in the Bronx. McCoy's world is knocked out of whack when he finds himself at the mercy of fame-hungry D.A.s, money-hungry opportunists, power-hungry politicians, and gossip-hungry journalists. It's the story of a world full of fools and blow-hards who spend most of their energy trying to be (or at least appear to be) otherwise.

The satire is acute and on-the-nose, but it also centers around a cast composed entirely of unlikeable characters. Everyone from the naive McCoy to the pompous (and shady) Reverend Bacon, from the hypocritical attorney Kramer to the pickled and brined journalist Fallow: they are well-rounded, mostly believable, and mildly intriguing, but they also reek of their various vices. Because of this, when Wolfe attempts poignancy, it comes across as vacuousness. When the satire tries to be tongue-in-cheek, it is instead elbow-in-rib (and not very subtly, either).

The biggest flaw in the novel is that Wolfe has tried to make far too many points, and he takes too long to make them. He puts his two cents in, but it looks like twenty. The story isn't bad at all, and the turns it takes are certainly entertaining, but it is a wearisome read. When all is said and done, I feel like I have learned more about political in-roads, journalistic deception, and financial loopholes than I have about real people, much less those all-greed, all-Me people of the 80's, at which Wolfe's novel tentatively tries to aim.

Again, this is a flaw of Wolfe's refusal to leave even the tiniest microbe of research out of his writing. A good knowledge of characters and setting is necessary to give a novel a solid pulse, a sense of liveliness, but any real and true pulse is usually hidden just beneath the surface. Wolfe has slashed the skin of his story, revealing its pulse in throbbing torrents. If I may torture the metaphor, he's cut a major artery of the tale in order to show us its life, and what he's done instead is cause his novel to die a slow and laborious death. We watch the book struggle and plod forward, valiantly, but by the end, all we're left with is a twitching mass that still wears a grisly death grin. The ending here is less an ending than it is Wolfe running out of research to employ. The pulse stops there.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Moreover, does it have sexually explicit scenes? Thanks!


Daniel Not that I recall, although it's been awhile since I read it.


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