Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Bonfire of the Vanities

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When you begin to read Bonfire of the Vanities, it would be wise to fasten your mental seatbelt. Get ready for a fast, exciting, heart pounding ride. Tom Wolfe’s multi-dimensional novel is about a wealthy Wall Street tycoon who has an unscrupulous affair with a “foxy” young lady and ends up in a world of trouble. One wrong turn on the Van Wyck Expressway in his fancy Mercedes sports car lands him in a Bronx ghetto where he and his mistress are involved in a hit-and-run accident.

From that moment on, “Mr. Wall Street” who egotistically thinks of himself as the “Master of the Universe” lives in fear… everything is at risk; his career, his marriage, and eventually his own life.

Tom Wolfe is a master of creating intricate plots that revolve around numerous people of different professions.  Bonfire of the Vanities takes the reader to the heart of the Bronx- the court house, the detention center, and the offices of the renowned Reverend Bacon (who very much resembles Al Sharpton). This makes quite an impression juxtaposed with pretentious dinner parties at exclusive penthouse suites on Park Avenue and the Wall Street Bond Sales offices. Add to that, the seedy underbelly of the media where reporters compete in the cut-throat business of digging up scandalous news stories, and you have all the ingredients for tragic adventure at its best. No one is immune to Wolfe’s cynical eye.

Tom Wolfe is a distinguished journalist known for his controversial essays which characterized a decade, era, or phase of American history, or an individual interesting incident. He honed his investigative reporting and research skills prior to writing this novel. For two years he rode around in homicide cars in the Bronx, hung out in the courthouse, and at police headquarters. He dedicated the book to a lawyer and a Bronx judge who became models for the characters in the story.  It’s no wonder the plot seems so real. Addressing racism, media bias, class divisions, and political motivations, the novel demonstrates how most people are simply looking out for themselves… the rest of the world be-damned. And the wonderful thing is, Tom Wolfe indiscriminately writes with realistic contemporary wry humor. Here are a few examples:

The Asst. DA in the Bronx is ridiculed by his co-workers for carrying his good leather shoes to work on rainy days in a plastic bag. The tough Irish and Italian detectives ask him if he’s a “f___’n faggot”, teasing him that the word could get out. The secretary is going to issue a f____’n memorandum, and if the whole office finds out, the Mayor will call a f___’n press conference.

The black youth of the Bronx are described as walking with a “pimp strut”.

And the wall street whiz who is wearing a $2000 custom made European suit when he is arrested has to ride in a police car that unfortunately has styrofoam peanuts all over the back seat because the officer’s kid did some kind of school project, so Mr. Perfect… “The Master of the Universe” is photographed for every major newspaper in New York showing up at the courthouse in handcuffs with plastic peanuts sticking to his clothes.

Riots, protests, court room drama, romantic trysts in the “Foxy lady’s” love nest, and so much more. This novel could have been a TV series equivalent to House of Cards or Breaking Bad. Too bad it was made into a second rate movie back in 1990 starring Tom Hanks. What were they thinking? I love Tom Hanks, but he was inappropriately typecast as the Waspy pretty-boy Yale grad, Wall Street Tycoon. No wonder the movie was a flop.

A must read, I can’t say enough good things about Bonfire of the Vanities. It deserves more than 5 stars. It’s off the charts in all categories: plot, substance, suspense, character development, dialogue. And despite the fact that it was published in 1987, it is every bit as relevant today. In fact, more so.

Rated 5 Stars June 17, 2016

All contents © 2016 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.



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