The Bonfire of the Vanities

views updated

The Bonfire of the Vanities

During the 1980s, few novels were as widely read or praised as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a witty examination of contemporary American culture by Tom Wolfe (1931–). First published in serialized form in Rolling Stone (see entry under 1960s—Print Culture in volume 4) magazine, the novel explores many social levels through the experiences of bond salesman Sherman McCoy. McCoy sees himself as a "master of the universe" due to the millions of dollars he is able to manipulate. In a nightmarish scene, McCoy and his mistress become lost in the South Bronx, where they are confronted by the poor, minorities, and the underclass—groups McCoy's fortune allowed him to avoid. For more than six hundred pages, Wolfe examines the fallout of McCoy being implicated in the hit-andrun traffic death of a young black boy. The novel spent many weeks on the best-seller (see entry under 1940s—Commerce in volume 3) lists and was praised for capturing the flavor of 1980s New York.

Tom Wolfe first came to the public's attention in the 1960s as an exponent of the "new journalism," a form of nonfiction reporting that combines detailed descriptions, analysis, dialogue, and a strong sense of the writer's presence. He coined phrases like "radical chic" and "the Me Decade." Among his most significant pre-Bonfire writings are The Electric Kool-AidAcid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979). Wolfe is also known for always appearing in public in a perfectly tailored white suit.

With The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, Wolfe gave readers a tale through which they could examine and decipher the major cultural elements and icons (symbols) of the 1980s. In Conversations with Tom Wolfe, he explained the origin of the novel: "Two things that are so much a part of the eighties—and I couldn't believe nobody else was writing about this in book form somewhere—are the astounding prosperity generated by the investment banking industry, and the racial and ethnic animosity." Some called the novel prophetic as it depicted racial, ethnic, and political hostilities that were occurring in the real New York. Others called Wolfe racist and criticized his unique style.

In 1990, the film version of Wolfe's novel, starring Tom Hanks (1956–) and Bruce Willis (1955–), premiered and was deemed a flop. Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) demanded so many revisions in order to appeal to the mass audience that the finished movie bore little resemblance to Wolfe's masterpiece.

—Charles Coletta

For More Information

"The Bonfire of the Vanities." Tom Wolfe. (accessed April 2, 2002).

Salamon, Julie. The Devil's Candy: "The Bonfire of the Vanities" Goes toHollywood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Scura, Dorothy, ed. Conversations with Tom Wolfe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Wolfe, Tom. The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987.