Review of “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe

The purpose of this book is demonstrate the consequences that result from combining democracy and diversity.

If you want to know why Lee Kwan Yew did away with jury trials, read this book.

The best way to understand a Tom Wolfe book – and there will (hopefully) be much discussion of Tom Wolfe’s work before his new book comes out – is to imagine that a very observant, intelligence and mischievous alien finds himself in a particular place and time and writes a story that’s supposed to highlight all the interesting aspects of this particular place and time. In the case of this book, the place and time are New York and the 1980s. The interesting aspects of this place and time that Wolfe chooses to highlight are that an aristocracy exists in a perilous condition on top of a democratic structure. This aristocracy separates itself from the rest of the masses – as one character puts it, the key to living in New York is to "insulate, insulate, insulate."

Let’s dive into the story.

Summary

A brief summary of the plot is necessary, and then we’ll turn to the major characters. (Spoilers follow)

A bond trader with a high income, Sherman McCoy, goes to the airport to pick up his mistress. On their way back to Manhattan, McCoy takes a wrong turn and they wind up in the Bronx. As they’re trying to get back onto the highway and precious sanctity of the right parts of Manhattan, they encounter a road block that has been put up by a drug dealer and a relatively good kid from the projects (Henry Lamb) who has been goaded into this activity by the drug dealer. (It’s not precisely clear that this is the set up, but the Irish cops basically figure out that this is what happens. The actual facts don’t matter, but these are almost certainly them).

McCoy gets out of the car to move a tire so that they can be on their way. Meanwhile, he’s approached by the two boys – the most likely scenario is that the drug dealer intends to rob McCoy and is dragging Lamb along, but I guess it’s possible the drug dealer just wanted to have a chat with McCoy about the bond market. McCoy throws a tire at the boy and runs back to the car. Meanwhile his mistress has moved to the drivers’ seat and she speeds away as McCoy gets back in the car. As the car is speeding away, it apparently hits Lamb.

Lamb goes to the hospital and says he has a broken wrist, which is treated. He also has a concussion, which the hospital does not notice. Later that day, Lamb falls into a coma. About a year later he dies. Let’s get through the rest of the story by focusing on the main characters.

Reverend Bacon

Bacon is the black community organizer or religious and political leader or whatever you want to call him. His business model is basically the same as Don Corleone’s. If you run a company, you can pay Bacon and he won’t stir up racial resentment against your company. If you don’t pay Bacon, you may find yourself on the wrong side of some racial resentment. Additionally, lots of government money is up for grabs if minority firms participate in various financing arrangements. Bacon apparently has several of these firms, and he appears to be the only employee of all them. All in all, Bacon does pretty well for himself. Unfortunately for the community in which he organizes, his success often means that services in the ghetto are crappy (which of course just helps drum up more "business" for Bacon). For example, Bacon staffs the local daycare with felons. But hey, it’s a democracy and "the people" like Bacon. Plus, if the daycare is staffed by felons, Bacon can complain about the fact that the quality of service in the ghetto is crappy.

Anyway, Henry Lamb’s mother is Bacon’s secretary. She’s afraid to go to the cops because she has so many outstanding parking tickets that there’s been a warrant issued for her arrest. Nevertheless, by the standards of Brooklyn at the time, this makes her a model citizen. After all, she hasn’t been arrested yet.

Bacon eventually gets her to go to the cops with the last statements that her son made to her. He told her that he was hit by a (very nice) car and gave a partial plate number. Bacon sees a chance to put a lot of political pressure on the District Attorney, Abe Weiss, because it would seem that a rich guy (i.e. a white guy – and a member of the New York aristocracy) hit a black guy with his car.

Bacon arranges a few demonstrations and plants a story with a reporter, Peter Fallows. At first, only some gay people show up to the demonstration, but later on, some black people show up and the TV makes it look like a huge demonstration.

Peter Fallow

Fallow is British guy who hates Americans, but needs them for things like money and sustenance and good alcoholic drinks, to which he’s addicted. Fallows is all to happy to be used by Bacon to create a story of an honor student (after all, he hadn’t been arrested) run down by a super rich white guy.

In the end, Fallows sees the workings of the system better than anyone, which perhaps explains why he’s constantly drunk. His stories lead to McCoy’s eventual arrest. Actually his stories basically require someone like McCoy to be arrested. The press, in this book, comes out looking worse than anybody, which is perhaps worth noting since the book is written by a "new journalist."

Incidentally, I should note that I read this book a long long time ago, and the only thing that’s stuck with me this long was Wolfe’s description of Fallow’s hangovers. The description is incredible. I still think of this book every time I wake up with a hangover.

Larry Kramer

Kramer is the Assistant District Attorney who is assigned to prosecute McCoy. As an ADA, it would appear that his primary job is to get his boss, Weiss, re-elected. Justice be damned (paging Lee Kwan Yew).

He plays to the mob, he frees criminals, he comes close to insisting that witnesses lie and he does it all to get his boss re-elected.

Kramer plays to the Bronx mob, but he would never actually leave the courts building. Throughout the book, Wolfe refers to the courts building as Gibraltar. None of the actual employees, like Kramer, would ever leave the building for lunch. At night, they all leave together in the "Gibraltar Wagon train." Kramer does what he can to insulate, insulate, insulate, but he can only afford so much. As such, he resents McCoy.

The "justice" system tries McCoy at least three separate times for this particular "crime." By the end of the book, McCoy has become a penniless permanent defendant. The book closes with McCoy giving the black power salute to his wife while he begins defending himself in his third trial. The ending couldn’t be more perfect – McCoy is now fighting the power structure, which is based mostly on racial grievances.

Racism

This book is racist by today’s standards. I’m not sure why you’re still allowed to read it and cite it approvingly. Maybe it was written long enough ago that it was able to skate under the ever-upward-ratcheting bar that defines "racism." Maybe Wolfe was a famous enough writer that he was immune. Probably some combination of these two factors explains it all.

Zimmerman

A lot of people have noted the similarities between this book and the George Zimmerman case. The differences, however, are just as interesting as the similarities.

In reality, there is no Great White Defendant. Zimmerman is black and Hispanic, at least by the normal definitions of these terms. He may be a decent guy, but he’s not a model citizen. The insulation of guys like McCoy from guys like Trayvon Martin is almost perfectly complete. Even random chance can’t bring them together in real life.

Nevertheless, the similarities are obvious enough (and the book is famous enough) that the whole Zimmerman fiasco is hysterical. The press clearly knows about this book, yet they couldn’t help themselves from being exactly as Wolfe suggests they will behave.

The book closes with McCoy’s first attorney saying that the real villains in the story are the District Attorney, Bacon and Fallow. The mainstream media played the same exact role played by Fallow. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine who played the other parts.

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15 Responses to Review of “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe

  1. Frost says:

    I think Maria’s the most interesting character in the book.

    Think of the scene near the end, in Maria’s apartment when she finds Sherman’s wire.

    Why is Maria even bothering to meet with Sherman? She has nothing to gain. The only explanation is that she’s considering offering Sherman a chance to present a united front and tell the truth. Not because it’s in her best interest, but simply because it’s what’s right.

    Remember, she’s just a simple prole southern girl at her core: “I’ll tell yuh what happened, Shuhman, we were attacked by a coupla niggers! You may know a lot more than me, but there’s some things that I know a lot more about than you!”

    (Or something like that)

    So what’s the point of all this? Perhaps Wolfe is saying:

    “Brahmins, heads up. The only way you’re going to defeat the Bacon/Fallow/Kramer alliance is by dealing with the Vaisya’s in good faith. Otherwise you’ll wind up like Shuh-man over here.”

    So it’s a shame that Maria is often seen as just a filler character.

    Also for discussion: Thoughts on Kovitsky?

    • Foseti says:

      Good point on Maria. Also, she then sides against Sherman, which – viewing it via the alliances you lay out – is also interesting.

    • PA says:

      ““Brahmins, heads up. The only way you’re going to defeat the Bacon/Fallow/Kramer alliance is by dealing with the Vaisyas in good faith.”

      I’d like to see that up on Moldbug’s masthead.

  2. Gabe Ruth says:

    The accident and the trial are in the Bronx. And there is no way Maria was going to tell the truth. She wouldn’t have turned on him like she did if he hadn’t worn the wire, but she’s got no inclination to doing what’s right at any cost to herself. What are you, some kind of white knight?

  3. bbtp says:

    I read it back in the 90s as some kind of outrageous satire, presumably aimed at specific notorious New Yorkers. Then I moved to America and realized that every word was true — it was actually America that was the satire.

  4. asdf says:

    Maria is a woman. Her morality is thin. Woman only act moral when it doesn’t cost them too much.

  5. robert61 says:

    Re hangover descriptions, the one that always comes back to me is Kingsley Amis’s from Lucky Jim:

    “Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

    Bombastic … and accurate. A bad hangover is bombast turned in on itself.

  6. Gilbert Pinfold says:

    If knowing how these things work sends a man to drink, then no wonder Tom Wolfe is able to describe a hangover.

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