Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book: The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a book published in 1987 by Tom Wolfe. It was a big success in the 1980s but I was too young to remember or care about it then. I finally got to read the book and now understand why it became famous.

There are some funny scenes but overall, the story is a drama which touches upon ego, racism, social classes, politics, and the media. 


Sherman McCoy, a married hotshot bond trader in a prestigious Wall Street firm, is having an affair with Maria. One night, Sherman and Maria get lost in the Bronx. The road is blocked and two young black men approach them to help. They feel threatened and Sherman attacks one of the men while Maria takes the wheel. As they are leaving the area, Maria may have hit the other black guy unintentionally. Sherman feels guilty but Maria convinces him not to report the incident. Things get complicated when suddenly a black youth ends up in coma, apparently hit by a car driven by a white person. A black activist-religious leader persuades Peter Fallow -- an alcoholic British tabloid journalist -- to write a series of articles that fuels protests and media coverage about the hit-and-run victim. Larry Kramer, an assistant defense attorney suffering from an early midlife crisis, seeks out the guilty driver while the DA monitors the case with his upcoming reelection in mind.


For me, a good book (or movie) is something that sticks to your mind for days after you've finished it, challenging your views about how the world works. The Bonfire of the Vanities is such a book. It was released 25 years ago but feels like a new one. If you disregard a few minor details (such as Maria's shoulder pads or the use of tape recorders), the story feels very current. The social issues that occur in the book are still plaguing us nowadays, a quarter of a century after the book has been published, and seem to be here to stay for a good deal longer -- apathy, racism, the wide gap between the rich and the poor, social unrest, moral ambiguity of lawyers, corruption masquerading as religious activism, social climbing, the media not giving us the complete truth and instead letting itself be used, and people in power using these issues to keep their hold on the masses.

The book is populated by flawed characters. They are not likeable (even the most innocent character in the book, Sherman's young daughter, is very annoying) yet the author is able to make the readers want to keep on reading. These characters are not inherently evil and for most of them, you see both the flaws and the redeeming qualities they possess.

I don't consider The Bonfire of the Vanities racist but I won't be surprised if some people nowadays will find it so. A lot of black and Latino characters in the book are thugs. There are some black characters who are nice but they are considered good people because of their normalcy: a certain black woman is shown as smart, reasonable, and a good mother but she has a warrant because of parking tickets while another black character, a so-called "honor student", is nothing more than a student who attends school everyday and is not disrespectful to his teachers.

Many of the characters also see themselves and each other as part of groups. Aside from the polarizing rich or poor and black or white, groups such as Jews, Irish, Italians, Yale grads, and WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) are also referred to in the book several times.

The term Bonfire of the Vanities refers to the historical burning of objects deemed to be sinful, such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, artworks, playing cards, books, and musical instruments. In the context of the book, however, it can refer to the destruction of the characters' egos. Many of the characters in the book are fueled not by spite or greed, but by vanity. Sherman loves his job as a Wall Street broker because the millions of dollars he handles everyday makes him feel like a Master of the Universe. His wife spends fortune acquiring high-priced clutter to impress others and gets giddy when other socialites pay attention to them. The assistant DA tries to impress good-looking women while his boss is a publicity hound who has never stepped in the courtroom. A rich guy is a VIP in an upscale restaurant until he is one day upstaged by a royalty, then his death is even considered a nuisance by the very same people who wait on him hand and foot. In the end, a lot of these egos, these vanities, burn up.

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