As a farm kid from Upstate New York, I grew up thinking of New York City as a place to be afraid of. I never went there, of course, but according to TV — well, excluding Seinfeld — and the movies, it was a jagged skyline towering above a huge steaming cesspool, where it was always nighttime and horrifying things happened to people. But as I got older and bored with my home county, that image began to appeal to me, and it’s ultimately what brought me here.
It was that same city — the dim grimy hole of crime and perversion, the New York of the 1980s — that appealed to Tom Wolfe and inspired him to write The Bonfire of the Vanities. Born into a genteel Virginia family, Wolfe has always been obsessed with race and class, and Bonfire depicts a divided city: ethnically, politically and geographically. According to Wolfe’s demographic map, in Manhattan below 96th Street is the insulated upper class of WASPs, who rarely set foot on the streets of their city. They live far above in high-rises and get ferried to and from work in taxi cabs. Also on the island are the Jews, who, after generations of struggle hold most of the positions in the city government but find power slipping from their grasp as New York demographically darkens. Then there are the masses of impoverished blacks and Puerto Ricans holding the upper half of Manhattan and nearly all of the Bronx and Brooklyn. It’s clear from early in the novel that the future of the city is theirs: Riverdale is “a little freeport”; Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope “Hong Kongs”; the Bronx County Building is repeatedly called “Gibraltar.” For now they’re getting chewed up by the justice system, but inevitably they’ll organize and take the city. Acting as a buffer are the Queens-based lower-middle class Irish and, to a lesser degree, Italians who run the police and hold minor jobs in the city courts. Finally, there’s the bohemian British expatriate community, in control of much of the city’s press and motivated mainly by their contempt for Americans.
In terms of plot, Bonfire is the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader from Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, born rich and getting richer. One night, while escorting his mistress from LaGuardia airport in his Mercedes-Benz, McCoy gets stuck in the wrong lane on the Grand Central Parkway and finds himself in the South Bronx. There he gets into a hit-and-run with a black high schooler that isn’t entirely his fault. A good chunk of the book just consists of McCoy trembling over whether he’ll get caught. But the boy’s mother goes to the Reverend Bacon — an Al Sharpton-style rabble-rouser who bends idealistic rhetoric to the purposes of intimidation and extortion — and Bacon goes to the police.
The case lands in the lap of Lawrence Kramer, a Bronx assistant DA (one of hundreds) feeling trapped in his job and small apartment, sick of anonymity and tired of prosecuting young blacks and Puerto Ricans. However, Kramer doesn’t fully realize what he has until Bacon’s lawyer brings the story to Peter Fallow, an alcoholic English reporter on the verge of losing his job. When it breaks in the press, the police trace the crime back to McCoy and the car accident off Bruckner Boulevard becomes a collision of every faction in New York City. Black and Puerto Rican protestors storm Park Avenue. McCoy is dragged into a jail cell in the Bronx. The justice system revels in finally having a WASP in its teeth. Faced with a rallying block of minority voters, the Jewish politicians have no choice but to condemn the rich bond trader. McCoy hires a street-smart Irish attorney named Tommy Killian, who acquaints him with the seamier sides of the law. Ultimately, McCoy lets himself sink and embraces the violence and seediness of New York City.
If done as a drama Bonfire would be painfully overwrought. But Wolfe is a satirist, and the book’s outrageousness is all for the sake of comedy. The opening chapter with the mayor, the descriptions of high-class parties, of the protests, of the all-out brawl in the courtroom, of just about every scene involving Killian, are so over-the-top that the reader has to laugh. The book is also a kind of prophecy: in the ’80s, an encounter like McCoy’s “fracas in the jungle” probably seemed inevitable; the contradiction of the city’s incredible wealth and unfathomable poverty was too great, it had to be resolved somehow. From Wolfe’s perspective, as the white working class bled out of New York, the democratic process would leave the blacks and Puerto Ricans in charge, exposing the elite to the raw reality of their “Third World city.”
Of course, as I — and countless others who’ve come to New York with the vision of a drippy, neon-lit metropolis — found, that prediction proved completely wrong. In the ’90s, crime was fiercely suppressed. The rich whites are richer than ever. New York has another Jewish mayor, now in his third term. Black and Puerto Rican communities are caught in a pincer between gentrification and the influx of Dominican, Mexican and Chinese immigrants. And while few neighborhoods have a strong Irish character anymore, and Italians are ceding their old strongholds in Brooklyn and Queens, the city has a growing population of white working class Eastern Europeans.
Which brings us to the question of the book’s literary merits. Wolfe declared in 1989 that he’d revived the great realist tradition of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. But Bonfire is too much a portrait of a specific time and place and not enough of a novel. The book’s leading men — McCoy, Kramer, Bacon, Fallow — are more or less the same character: vain, arrogant, sleazy, hungry for glory. Reading their interior monologues is a bit like watching a puppet show where all the dolls have the same voice. Some Internet troll will probably argue that Wolfe was trying to show the universality of certain human tendencies, but it’s idiotic to think that people from such disparate backgrounds would have identical personalities. McCoy’s third act conversion to a tough guy comes off as childish, and the plot is altogether too dependent on coincidence.
New York is amorphous and unpredictable, and any book whose main virtue is describing it accurately is doomed to be short-lived. Bonfire is like an old Polaroid: blurring, curling at the edges, slowly turning brown and falling apart — a reminder of the impermanence of things and of how shallow pictures really are. Like me, most people who glance at it today probably do so out of nostalgia for the dirty, gritty old city. Topical writers like Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck have endured because of their wide appeal and deep humanity. But Wolfe’s writing isn’t as powerful as Steinbeck’s, and his characters lack the warmth and charm of Dickens’. Even though Dickens’ London and Steinbeck’s California have long vanished, in 100 years — assuming anyone is still reading — Great Expectations and Of Mice and Men will continue to enjoy broad audiences. But as Tom Wolfe’s New York fades out of memory, The Bonfire of the Vanities will likely do the same.