TCS Daily

The Bonfire than Wouldn't Burn Out

By Michael Rosen - December 13, 2005 12:00 AM

NEW YORK - They "tell us stories about ourselves in ways that we couldn't." So writes Marc Weingarten in The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, an excellent new literary biography of Tom Wolfe and other "New Journalists." Of few novels is such a statement truer than Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. And if only great novels stand the test of time, then Bonfire can properly be labeled a masterpiece.

The book, Wolfe's first, hit bookshelves 18 years ago during the booming 80's. As a biting send-up of yuppified New York, a caustic satire of the city's racial entrepreneurs, and a hilarious depiction of criminal justice and journalistic ethics in the Big Apple, the novel won accolades from nearly all critics. Unsurprisingly, the rave reviews (for the book -- the movie was another story) have proven as long-lived now as they were well-deserved then.

The novel describes the decline and fall of Sherman McCoy, a bond trader at the fictional Wall Street investment house of Pierce & Pierce, a so-called Master of the Universe, raking in nearly $1 million per year in salary, commissions, and bonuses. A WASPy native son of the city's Upper East Side, Sherman lives an extravagant lifestyle, endures a loveless marriage, and depends for his sanity on the only pure, uncorrupted thing in his life: his daughter Campbell.

Sherman's infidelities lead him on a late-night escapade into the South Bronx -- the epitome of the wilderness, as it existed in the mid-80's -- where he and his paramour encounter two black youths. After a brief, harrowing altercation, Sherman manages to escape but one of the kids suffers a concussion and winds up in a coma.

Sherman tries unsuccessfully to resume normal life. A Dostoevskyian conscience compels him to mismanage a major bond deal; to growl at his wife and daughter; to flub an important social invitation; and, worst of all, to stumble when the police visit his gaudy Park Avenue duplex to conduct a routine investigation.

Ultimately, Sherman is arrested on reckless endangerment and other charges. The morality tale winds its way to a powerful ending (which I won't spoil for anyone who, like me, has neglected this masterwork for 18 years).

But the profound themes and colorful characters of the book retain their charm and significance in 2005.

For one thing, the conspicuous consumption that characterized the 80's persists even unto this very day. Emblematic of its staying power is Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul who first entered the public eye in the 80's yet, today, may be more wealthy and better-known than ever.

I write these words from a Starbucks within the famous Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, site of the Donald's breakthrough television show The Apprentice. Through a low, plate-glass retaining wall capped by a long, gilded banister--I am overlooking a two-story-tall Christmas tree set against a waterfall trickling gracefully down four stories. A five-foot-tall toy drummer boy gently blows a bugle and carefully guards a stack of fake presents. And that's just one small portion of the atrium.

Signs of spectacular consumption are on full display across the city. To be fair, this is peak shopping season and Saks, Bergdorf, and Bloomingdales have all larded their windows with especially grandiose and wasteful displays of, well, nothing. And this is New York, after all, where a billionaire mayor just spent tens of millions of his own dollars on a joke of a reelection that he won by almost 20 points.

Thus, other than the tapered pants, puffy sleeves, and massive shoulder pads, Wolfe's depiction of the new Gilded Age is about as accurate in nigh-2006 as it was in 1987. While the bond trading floor may have been supplanted by the hedge fund office, the overpowering scent of wealth remains just as pungent. Indeed, even the author's fictional Pierce & Pierce has flourished over the years, serving as the prime destination for would-be collegiate investment bankers in Wolfe's latest opus, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Other aspects of the work continue to stand up, too. The racial polarization Wolfe portrays still marks much of the city. While the crime pandemic and the paralyzing fear it bred have mostly subsided, thanks in large part to former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and while today's white politicians -- unlike Wolfe's hapless mayor and frantic Bronx district attorney -- have broadened their appeal to black and Latino voters, a palpable element of racial anxiety still tinges the air.

Figures like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson still command far more attention than they deserve. The Bronx is still overwhelmingly populated by minorities. And gentrification in upper Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn has simply pushed blacks and Latinos out of certain neighborhoods rather than integrating them therein.

For instance, the nice Upper East Side apartment that we are subletting sits just across First Avenue from a massive housing project, homes that are bounded on the other side by an even posher residential skyscraper. Though many of the city's communities sit cheek-by-jowl, they do not necessarily interact in a particularly friendly way. In fact, New York has become even more ethnically heterogeneous over the past few decades.

Of course, the city's cultural mix contains some very positive elements too, from the range of extraordinary cuisine to the smorgasbord of languages spoken on the streets. This -- along with the stately pre-war apartment buildings and brownstones, the glorious park, and the marvelous New Yawk accents (in all their variety) -- is another enduring Bonfire legacy.

In February, Wolfe himself eulogized his friend Hunter S. Thompson, saying that he "wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization." The same could easily be said of Wolfe's own work; there can be no question that New York's "bizarre exuberance" served as his muse, then and now.

Ultimately, Bonfire's endurance is a testament as much to the city's tenacity as to Wolfe's preternatural novelistic talents. Since 1987, New York has weathered two major terrorist attacks, the mayoralty of David Dinkins, race riots, power outages, and massive snowstorms galore. But it sure hasn't lost it character.

Michael M. Rosen, son of two Brooklyn natives, is an attorney in San Diego.

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