Friday, August 19, 2005


Review: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Writing Style-6.8
Literary Merit(whatever that means)-7.2

This book starts out pretty slow. I was annoyed with the way Wolfe would write an action sentence to start each paragraph and then digress into some background story of the character’s. I thought that this would continue throughout the ~700 page book and that it would be pretty slow slogging through it. But, around page 200 this seems to stop.

There the pace quickens dramatically. And it’s an extremely compelling plot with great characters. I suppose setting up the scene and giving depth to the characters and their world is the point of the first 200 pages. But still, I think you can build depth more subtly and less annoyingly than he does it.

The main point though is that this turns out to be a great book. It’s about classism and race relations in New York, New York in the mid to late eighties at the height of Reaganomics and the New York crime wave.

The story goes: a wealthy Wall Street bond trader, named Sherman McCoy, and his mistress get lost one night driving through downtown in his Mercedes. They wander into the seedy part of Brooklyn that is filled with the downtrodden and minorities and are desperate to find their way back to Manhattan. They get increasingly scared. They come upon a couple of tires blocking the road, the man gets out of the car to move the tires and a couple of young black men approach him either to help or attack him. He assumes they are attacking him, throws a tire at them, the mistress gets behind the wheel and runs over the other one. They run off as fast as they can.

From here it progresses into a bit of a crime/court room type drama at times. Are they guilty of hit and run? What about the background of the two black men? Were they being robbed?

The trial becomes a huge media circus when a black, activist reverend takes up the cause to show that the New York legal system is corrupt and racist.

What is interesting is that though this is a book about racism and classism, it doesn’t revolve around the tragedy of the young black man who gets run over. You really feel for Sherman and feel as though he is a victim of this racially-charged, greed-induced atmosphere.

Overall, this is a great read. There is so much depth to the New York setting. Highly recommended. Don’t be thrown off by descriptions of this book as being about the upper class in 1980’s New York, that sounds kind of boring. It’s really a crime/court drama at heart, but with so much richness and so many great characters and such smart satire that it is really much, much more.

You mention that it takes a while for the book to "pick up" after some hundred pages of not-that-great style. I've noted that myself about several books, and its commonly expressed by other book reviewers.

Why does this happen so frequently? I never have thought that books are written from beginning to end - authors likely jump around, so taking 200 pages to find their style for the book probably is not a good explanation. Is it that they are struggling with a need to set up too much back story so that the rest of the book makes sense? Thoughts?
I wonder how much of it is "not-that-great-style" and how much of it is "I'm not connected to any of these characters yet." I've always assumed that when I feel a book doesn't catch on up front, that part of the fault lies with myself since I've yet to form any real bond with the characters or plot.

Of course, there are books whose authors clearly do not find their stride until later in the book. I think a lot of authors actually do write from beginning to end, but with much editing afterwards. I'd say the begninning of a book is the hardest part to write. I always found that to be true of any substantial papers I've written.
Hoo boy, this book. I've read this one like five times, and I feel disgusted and guilty each time I do.

You said, "What is interesting is that though this is a book about racism and classism, it doesn’t revolve around the tragedy of the young black man who gets run over. You really feel for Sherman and feel as though he is a victim of this racially-charged, greed-induced atmosphere." You're on the right track with this observation. Think about it, what is Wolfe's theme in the book? What made Wolfe want to tell this story?

This book is at reactionary at best, and probably best described as racist. The whole point of the book is that the "good" (and yes, white) parts of New York (rich Manhattan, the Bronx courthouse, and so on) are surrounded and under siege by this malevolent black morass, stirred to hatred by black racial agitators. The conflict and story arc presents Sherman as blissfully ignorant of this threat, until this black "menace" turns its full force upon him simply because he accidentally and innocently took the wrong exit off the freeway and reacted as any "reasonable" person would do to the black teenagers approaching them.

So, the black "menace" systematically destroys Sherman's life, at which point Sherman becomes the only sympathetically treated character in the book (well, and his daughter, who serves primarily as a reminder of how much the "menace" has taken from Sherman- "they ruined the little innocent girl's life.") Sherman moves from naive pussy to hero as he is forced to confront and fight the black "menace" and hatred trained upon him. And it takes the rich WASP to possess the fortitude to fight the good fight against the "menace". If you notice, the "grunts" in the war against the "menace" (the cops, the lawyers, etc.) are lazy, crooked, cynical, and disillusioned. Wolfe is suggesting they aren't doing their job to protect the islands in New York.

Maybe you'll argue that I'm reading too much into it, that the actions, plot, and characters are reasonable and realistic. But, I want to stress this:

Wolfe created this work completely out of his own head. He crafted the story to make you sympathize with the people he wants you to sympathize with, and root against the people he wants you to root against. He created a 800 or so page book out of the premise that rich white people are in danger of losing everything because of the black menace and they are naive if they don't realize it.

Don't get me wrong, Wolfe is a good writer. Part of the reason I've read it several times is that is an excellent and entertaining read, despite its abhorrent theme. But he is a bitter old fuck whose spends his life spewing outrage at what he sees as the moral failings of others. It's funny in a pathetic way, he's like a five-year-old in that you can tell him something trivial and it completely takes over his mind. He's so out of touch, he picks up these nuggets of pop culture that everyone under 50 is aware of, and proudly presents them as if he were God talking to Moses, and expects the reader to be as shocked as he was to learn it. A Man In Full had a character explain about how college kids have casual sex, and how they call this ritual "hooking" up. The same book, he details when rappers say "peel yo cap", they mean that you will be killed, and an autopsy will be performed and your skull cut open.

But off that tangent, his books are about exposing what he sees as outrages. They are compelling in this sense, and he adeptly conveys said outrage. But it's worth noting what he's outraged by. His last one was "These college kids are screwing around, aren't you as disgusted to learn this as I am!?!" He actually wrote a book about how modern art isn't art because he doesn't get it. The point of Bonfire of the Vanities is that rich white people better watch out, because those angry black people can and will get to them. And, he tries his damnedest to instill that fear into the reader.

Not all racism is automatically blantantly objectionable, like burning crosses. Sometimes it's subtle and packaged in a white box with a red bow. This book, much like Birth of a Nation, is an well-presented, compelling work with a repulsive theme.
Hmmm... This is interesting. My first instinct is to say, "Really? How can you be so sure?"

I obviously, from my review, think that the novel standing on its own (ie, knowing absolutely nothing about the author) is not overtly racist. I think it's satire. I think that up until the latter part of the book, Wolfe treats Sherman with as much ridicule as the reverend activist (can't remember his name). Sherman is a self-proclaimed "master of the universe", his wife makes fun of his job as a bond trader as people passing around a big peice of cake and collecting the crumbs that fall off in this process. I don't think there's any question that the societal elite are being mocked. The same way the black activism is mocked or the way that the newspaper man trying to write a sensational story and get the "scoop" is mocked or the way the defunct cops or the DA with political aspirations are being mocked. I think pretty much the whole community is being pooh-poohed. The way I read it was not so much that there was this white fortress of Manhattan being encroached upon by the black menace as much as how might this perception of a black menace (racism) ultimately effect in a negative way those persons who seem untouchable (the elite) by the woes of the lower castes. In other words, we all know that racism is bad for black people but how can racism have an effect on a rich white guy? How might classism ever have a negative impact on the upper class? At least that's what I took from it.

And it's probably important to point out as many know that I'm a liberal and I tend to read liberal books and I usually tend to assume that a highly acclaimed writer is pretty smart and therefore pretty liberal.

Now, I can totally understand the racism that you took from the book. Any time a white guy (not to mention a little southern-born socialite dressed in a white suit) writes about black rage its like walking on eggshells. So, to discuss this I think the authorial intent has to creep in. To what degree is Tom Wolfe racist? Did he really set-out to write about the black menace encroaching on his good times as you suggest?

To answer this question we need to know more about Tom. I googled him and found this interview to be pretty enlightening.,13918,1340525,00.html

It seems to me that he is much like how Amy and I have described her brother, Mike, as being. Mike has lived in a college setting, Morgantown, WV, and Tampa, FL his whole life. These are two relatively liberal areas. Mike is quite the rebel so in these environments he has turned out conservative. We feel like if Mike spent a significant amount of time in Knoxville, for instance, his rebellious nature would make him into a liberal. I was reminded of this in the Wolfe interview when he says:

"Indeed, I was at a similar dinner, listening to the same conversation, and said: 'If all else fails, you can vote for Bush.' People looked at me as if I had just said: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester.' I would vote for Bush if for no other reason than to be at the airport waving off all the people who say they are going to London if he wins again. Someone has got to stay behind."

So, if, for example, he satirizes white liberal radicalism I don't think that it is as much racism as his nature of rebelling against his environment which is the New York literati.

Also, in this article he takes pride in writing novels where the reader would have difficulty determining if he was conservative or liberal.

[He is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty, or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher than being a good writer."]

So I also think that in Bonfire he is simply trying document the society. And I felt like it really had the ring of truth to it. Especially, when you compare it to the OJ Simpson trial and subsequent rioting. That trial could have easily been a similar novel. And I think that the entire world was saddened and sickened by everything involved in that trial and the society that produced such tensions as Wolfe is sickened by his vision of New York in Bonfire.

Another good article I came across:

Note the quotes by Toni Morrison at the end. She lauds the book here and I consider her an expert on racism.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Crap, those links don't work when you read the comments with the little skinny column. If you go to the review page (Hit Bonfire under the "Book Reviews" links) then you can better read the comments and the entire links show up.
"And it's probably important to point out as many know that I'm a liberal and I tend to read liberal books and I usually tend to assume that a highly acclaimed writer is pretty smart and therefore pretty liberal."

Hah, let me tell you now, Tom Wolfe is no liberal.

Where to start. The Bonfire of the Vanities is not satire. Just because a book is cynical and mean-spirited (and the characters are grotesque caricatures) does not make it satire. Satire essentially is the art of revealing the good by mocking the bad. The book arguably starts out as satire, but it stops being such when Sherman becomes the protagonist by losing the socialite wussiness, becoming a "man's man" and starts fighting back against the "jungle", his bitch wife, his bitch mistress [did you pick up on that theme?], the crooked Irish cops, the limey tabloid reporter, and all the other riff-raff which assail his aristocratic WASP ass. When he starts doing that, he ceases to be a target of Wolfe's derision and all of a sudden becomes Wolfe's fucking hero (the epilogue is absolutely fawning in its treatment of "Shuhmun".) In fact, the whole central conflict of the novel is "will Sherman grow a pair and put these minorities/women/poor people/effete liberals back in their place before it's too late?"

Tom Wolfe is a bitter, arrogant asshole who feels that the whole of humanity is beneath him, except maybe astronauts. This book absolutely drips with contempt for every character except Sherman, once he becomes a "man" and starts confronting the "confederacy of dunces" that have set upon him. (Please note, if you think I'm overdoing the "manly man" thing, his next book is entitled "A Man In Full." Draw your own conclusion regarding that.) In my opinion, you either have to assume that the book has a [racist/sexist/elitist] point to make, or that it's pointless "satire" (or perhaps more appropriately, a "catalogue of contempt") and not really even "literature".

You appear to suggest that Wolfe is held to a stricter standard of racism because he is a "southern-born socialite dressed in a white suit." I think that's true, but not in the sense you think it is. I don't really even think of him as Southern; I think he just likes the trappings of the antebellum Southern aristocracy because "everyone knew their place back then" and he'd be the rich, learned, plantation owner who is just a little lonely because there's no one around to recognize his greatness except the rabble who he gently mocks out of his benevolent paternalism (of course, what's "gently mocking" to Wolfe is sheer assholery to most normal people.) I see him more as a poser who actually aspires to the negative parts of the Southern "rotting" aristocracy that the great Southern writers confront and criticize.

Also, I get where you're going with the "rebel" thing (I know many people similar to Amy's brother in that respect), but Wolfe isn't a contrarian who likes to challenge commonly-held but infrequently-analyzed ideas in hopes of getting at a greater truth. There's a big difference between disagreeing with people and dismissing their opinion as unimportant because you don't respect them. Tom Wolfe is a spiteful troll who takes delight in pissing people off because his anal-rententive ass hates them for their weaknesses, pretensions, and failings. Actually, as I'm writing, I don't think Wolfe ever even starts liking Sherman in the book, he just starts respecting him, which is about as good as you're gonna get out of Wolfe.

Interestingly enough, wikipedia links to a NY times article suggesting that Tom Wolfe is Dubya's favorite author. Here's the abstract of the article (apparently the article is not accessible):

ABSTRACT - List supplied by White House of books Pres Bush is currently reading omits Tom Wolfe's racy new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, book Bush is enthusiastically recommending to friends; Bush says he has read every one of Wolfe's books; photo (White House Letter) (M)

Given what a smug, arrogant, contemptuous asshole Bush is, I have absolutely no trouble believing he likes Wolfe a lot. They remind me of each other.

Also, looking at Toni Morrison's quotes, seems to me like she was being diplomatic, not laudatory. As she said, Wolfe actually ignores the bigger question which actual "satire" would address.

Wolfe is not Bret Easton Ellis, who presents horrible characters, but affords them human dignity and empathizes with their despair or disillusionment. Wolfe mocks their despair and futile struggles because they have sinned in the eyes of "God". We can disagree as to whether the novel is racist or not, but its telling to me that Wolfe seems more sympathetic to Sherman while his wife mocks his career than he is to the, you know, innocent black kid that Sherman and his mistress kill. Buy a used copy of the book, and you won't find any tear stains on that page of the book.

P.S. Google "updike irving wolfe".
"Wolfe is not Bret Easton Ellis, who presents horrible characters, but affords them human dignity and empathizes with their despair or disillusionment."

Hmm...and then has them brutally mangled, murdered, raped, hijacked by model/terrorists... and sometimes they turn out not to be human at all
I think you're trying to score a debater's point here, Amy. I'm saying that Tom Wolfe treats Sherman's wife with more contempt and disgust for making fun of Sherman's job, for instance, than Ellis treats Patrick Bateman for his string of grisly murders (or, say, than Nabakov treats Humbert in Lolita). Ellis and Nabakov don't whitewash the horrible actions of their characters, but they still humanize the characters. Sherman's wife, as written by Wolfe is basically a two-dimensional "X-Ray Generic Bitch (Damn Them Wimmen Like To Spend)", with absolutely no depth or character development whatsoever.

You're a bigger fan of Ellis than I am - surely it's not because his books merely consist of Ellis having characters "brutally mangled, murdered, raped, hijacked by model/terrorists" and you just enjoy snuff novels.

I was saying Ellis is able to empathize even with serial murderer/torturer characters more than Wolfe can with your average women and minority characters, and I think that's a testament to what an asshole Wolfe is.
Alright, you've got me half convinced here. There's no question Wolfe is an asshole and doesn't seem to care about anybody or anything.

So, what you're saying is that we've all been duped? The national book award voters were duped, Rolling stone - duped, Tom Hanks and Brian De Palma - duped, NY Times book reviews - duped? That Wolfe is getting a big kick out of this novel making him a literary celebrity (I know he's got his detractors but still...) all the while he's laughing his ass off that he wrote this racist diatribe?

Obviously these people read the book the same way I did, as satire.

Well shit, I don't know. it's probably somewhere in between. I mean, he's probably a little racist but he gets by by playing it close to the vest and writing pretty entertaining stories.

I now have no desire to read A Man in Full.

If you feel this way about the book and Wolfe, why do you keep reading it? That's weird dude.
greg, my comment was just a pointless aside. i wasn't making an argument there. i haven't even read bonfire, and after this discussion about it, i'm a little less likely to.
Well, since you mention the movie, here's a link to a law review note I found last night with the following abstract. And there aren't very many law review articles written about movies, trust me:

Professor Vogel evaluates the 1990 film based on Tom Wolfe's book, Bonfire of the Vanities. Although finanically unsuccessful, the Article concludes that the film performed an important public service. The film version allowed the public to see the reactionary views toward gender, race, and religion that often went unrecognized in Wolfe's book.

And, no, I don't think "that Wolfe is getting a big kick out of this novel making him a literary celebrity (I know he's got his detractors but still...) all the while he's laughing his ass off that he wrote this racist diatribe?" He probably doesn't think he's racist or sexist- in his sad little mind, he probably thinks he's "depicting reality" like a good "Journalist" [I like that term] or "saying what everything one thinks but is afraid to say".

And, as I said, it's a entertaining, compelling read if you read it as a story and nothing more. It's only when you step back and think about what it means, or why he wrote it, or what his perspective is on the subject matter (which are questions one should always ask about literature) that the problems emerge. Most people don't do that with the books they read; that's left to us nerds. As a "book", it's funny, rollicking, and engaging. As a "novel", it's odious.

As for the question about why I keep reading it, I could've sworn I told you I do this with books I hate. I know I've discussed it with Charlie and Hippie. I despise Catcher in the Rye more than any book I've ever read (except maybe "Anthem"), and I've read it like eight times now. In fact, I think I mentioned this in passing in my comments to your Wuthering Heights review. I'll generally reread any book that inspires strong emotions or reactions, be they positive or negative, on my part. Those are the books I feel compelled to pick apart and analyze further. In addition, if it's a book that pisses me off, I'll reread it to try to ensure I'm giving it a fair shake and that I'm not missing something before I go on record as attacking it.

Also, I don't want to discourage you guys from reading the book or Wolfe in general. I read (I didn't buy, I read) A Man In Full knowing exactly what I was going to get. I'm just sharing my take on the book and the author- I happen to be wrong about stuff on occasion. :) And, if my take on Wolfe and the book are somewhat on point, I actually want people to read or reread the book with this perspective in mind, as an example of how subtle and insidious bigotry can be, and how it can hide itself in "reasonable" observatives. Regardless what I personally think of the book on a moral level, it makes for fascinating criticism, discussion, and analysis. I'm definitely not suggesting that people shouldn't read the book.

The last Wolfe book I read was the one about modern art. While in law school, John lent me his copy and said, "Here, you should read this; you'll hate it." I read it basically so we could argue about it. I'd actually like to get John to join in this discussion- he knows a fair amount about Wolfe (they both to W & L), and probably totally disagrees with my take on Wolfe and the book.
I actually think Tom Wolfe doesn't have nearly as big an agenda as everyone is giving him credit for. I don't think he's that abstractly smart or that great a writer. What he is is incredibly thorough. He'll take any subject, which he knows nothing at all about to start with (art, drugs, space, Atlanta, college sex) and spend years studying it. He's essentially a well-paid and verbose journalist.

But, I think he's a damn fine journalist. He is really good at analyzing subjects, critiquing them, offering a few insights, and then leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. That's why I personally don't enjoy reading him that much, other than "The Painted Word." He just doesn't come to any conclusions.

That's also, I think, why Greg's conclusions differ vastly from those of Rolling Stone and the New York Times editorial page.

That said, I've never read Bonfire of the Vanities, and it sounds like my take on Wolfe may not fit as well with that book. Is it really not based on any research he did, but just "invented in his head"? I suspect he looked into a topic and the racism discussed above is a reflection of the racism he found in the subjects he studied. He's not condoning it, he's just relaying it to the general public. You can fault him for not critiquing the right things, which can be seen as tacitly approving of them.
Hi all!
[url=]bentley dierks[/url]
hello all
[url=]hotchkiss co real estate[/url]
[url=]humber college[/url]
[url=]estate real speedwell tn[/url]
[url=]jennifer hudson[/url]
Good day to everyone
[url=]hotchkiss co real estate[/url]
[url=]humber college[/url]
[url=]estate real speedwell tn[/url]
[url=]jennifer hudson[/url]
Hi folks
[url=]herrington marmon[/url]
[url=]durant kevin[/url]
[url=]barnes and noble[/url]
[url=]international harvester[/url]
[url=]dc design[/url]
Good day to everyone
[url=]group sex[/url]
[url=]asian girl[/url]
[url=]big penis[/url]
[url=]anal sex[/url]
[url=]big pussy[/url]
[url=]ebony porn[/url]
[url=]arab sex[/url]
[url=]gay anal[/url]
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?