Friday, December 12, 2008

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Sherman McCoy is a self-styled Master of the Universe. Along with his fellow stockbrokers, he is key to the success of one of New York City's biggest brokerages in the late 1980's. He is rich, but up to his neck in debt, married to a beautiful woman but concerned that she's aging, and in love with a job that hangs on the whims of the world. One night, out with his mistress Maria, a wrong turn into the projects leads to a hit-and-run, and a young black man is killed.

When Reverend Bacon (the book's stand-in for Al Sharpton) launches a public crusade against the man responsible for the hit-and-run, Sherman finds himself blacklisted. Everyone wants to bring him down, including a mayor desperately looking for a way to reconnect with his minority populace, Peter Fallow, a washed-up reporter looking for a story to revive his career, and Larry Kramer, a district attorney who desperately wants to sleep with a mysterious brown-eyed juror.

Wolfe is a proponent of the school of New Journalism, and Bonfire, heavily researched, combines a ripped-from-the-80s-headlines story with a strong eye for satirizing the excesses of that era. Sherman, initially a loathsome, self-absorbed bastard, becomes almost sympathetic as the story unfolds, revealing him as a hopelessly naive, insecure status-seeker. Others, like DA Larry Kramer, begin more sympathetically but no one comes out looking all that good in the end.

Wolfe's writing style is interesting and sometimes irritating (mostly due to his overuse of ellipsis), but it keeps the action moving and molds the characters from one-dimensional archetypes into three-dimensional people. When Sherman finally reaches the end of the line (written as a front page story for the New York Times) it is shocking but seems inevitable. The characters do more less what you would expect with the hands the story hands them, but that's not a negative. There are no breakout moments, no sudden bursts of character or long soliloquies about the injustice of it all. Just a solid, believable story that's well worth reading.

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