Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Point Beach Inlet
Point Beach Inlet

In a previous post I mentioned a Netflix documentary on Tom Wolfe , an author I’d heard of but never read. Shortly after watching the doc, I was in B&N and The Bonfire of the Vanities was on display. I knew little about Bonfire other than a Tom Hank’s movie based on the book and it was set in the 1980s.

I enjoyed the first third of the book. It’s always fun to read about rich bankers doing rich banker things, like living in extravagant Park Avenue apartments, attending exclusive parties, wearing $1200 (1980’s money) shoes. Sherman McCoy, the protagonist, is a bonds guy who considers himself a Master of the Universe, a term Wolfe either created or popularized. We also meet a struggling assistant DA, a failed reporter, politically minded preachers and DAs, wives and girlfriends, and cops. It’s a fun introduction, save long-winded.

Once the main plot gets rolling, though, Bonfire becomes a slog. Scenes go on forever; I lost count of how many times I thought “I get it, let’s move on,” From a style standpoint, reading Sherman’s internal dialogue was brutal; literally pages of him just repeating he was worried. I had to skip the long paragraphs… luckily the worried thoughts were italicized and easy to pick out.

The other major flaw the lack of anyone to root for. Not one character, certainly not the selfish, cheating, MOTU Sherman, the scheming political DA’s or clergy, the perpetually drunk and lucky reporter, the socialite wives only concerned with status and becoming skeletally thin, nor the cops and defense lawyers who exist in a corrupted and broken system. Assumedly this is the point; all these groups are self-motivated and grind on each other to everyone’s detriment. But as a reader, I’m not interested.

Overall, I was disappointed in Bonfire, especially after a strong start. Wolfe was talented but needed a stronger editor to reign in the rambling inner dialogues and never-ending scenes. I’d like to read his feature articles from Vogue or GQ as a comparative as the constraints of a magazine could help him.

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