The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe | Book review

Hermione Hoby enjoys the glitz and bombast of the definitive 80s satire

So regularly is Tom Wolfe’s brash 1987 tome described as “the quintessential novel of the 80s” that you almost feel the phrase could be slapped on as a subtitle. But the ability to “capture the decade” isn’t the only measure of a writer’s ability, and like a hot-pink puffball dress, this story displays a blithe disregard for nuance.

Sherman McCoy, known to himself as a “Master of the Universe”, is a millionaire bond trader at Wall Street’s Pierce and Pierce, where the roar of the trading floor “resonate[s] with his very gizzard”. His mastery is punctured, however, when, with his mistress at the wheel, his Mercedes hits and fatally injures a young black man in the Bronx. The story of McCoy’s subsequent downfall is told alongside those of three other men, all characterised by their raging ambition and vanity: an alcoholic tabloid journalist desperate for a scoop; a power-hungry pastor; and a district attorney keen to impress one of his former jury members, the brown-lipsticked Miss Shelly Thomas.

Wolfe revels in the rambunctious, seething world of 80s New York and brings to life in primary-colours prose a city fraught with racial tensions and steeped in ego. The contrasting worlds of McCoy and his victim, Henry Lamb, are vividly dramatised, if not with great subtlety: rich, white Park Avenue versus poor, black Bronx.

At one particularly extravagant party, McCoy strays into a room described as “stuffed… with sofas, cushions, fat chairs and hassocks, all of them braided, tasselled, banded, bordered and... stuffed”. Sometimes this big beast of a novel feels the same: dense with research and bulging with bombast. Yet, it has to be admitted, it’s also great fun.

Hermione Hoby

The GuardianTramp

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