The title of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is just that. The title explains it all. There are an awful lot of vain and pompous characters in this book, and nobody escapes the scathing criticism and caricatured representations of Wolfe. It is brilliant writing, astute observations about human nature, and an intriguing story.
The story is mostly about Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street trader who calls himself “Master of the Universe.” He certainly seems to have it all: an “aging” wife, a young daughter, a large expensively furnished apartment on Park Avenue, a Mercedes Benz, and a girlfriend. The last two items lead to his downfall. Early in the novel, we find Sherman and his mistress Maria lost in the Bronx while driving his car. The two attempt to get on the freeway, but there’s a blockade, and two young black men approach them (for a carjacking? Or to help?) when Sherman gets out to move the tires in the road. He ends up scuffling with the two young men and jumping back into the car. Maria has moved into the driver’s seat and speeds away as fast as she can, hitting one of the young men as they depart.
This incident sets up the rest of the novel. Sherman wants to report the hit and run as soon as they are away. Maria advises him not to, saying some racist thing about them being in “the jungle” and fighting for their lives. She sees her actions as justified and decides to cover up the hit-and-run. Sherman doesn’t agree and feels guilty, but he doesn’t call the police either. He isn’t exactly a moral pillar, as his excuse for having a affair is this: “A Master of the Universe couldn’t be a saint, after all . . . It was unavoidable” (p. 54). He has no sense of personal responsibility, and Maria was driving, after all.
This moral dilemma is only the beginning of dilemma after dilemma in the novel. Not only are Sherman’s and Maria’s ethics questionable, but so are everyone else’s. This seems to be the point of the novel, that nobody is “good” and that everybody is afflicted by hubris. It crosses class, gender, and racial lines.
The district attorney, Lawrence Kramer, who ends up pursuing Sherman’s hit-and-run case, isn’t good or honest either. His wife has a new baby, and every scene involving him revolves around his thoughts of other women. He takes jurors on dates and is obsessed with flexing his neck muscles for women. That vanity is quite hilarious, and late in the novel, he tries this muscle flexing on Maria. She is later caught on tape making fun of his weird neck moves. He’s mortified.
When Kramer is wining and dining a former juror, he talks highly of his career and his noble aspirations. He wonders what she’s thinking about him, and if she understands how great he is. Wolfe wrote, “In fact, she was thinking about the way men are in New York. Every time you go out with one, you have to sit there and listen to two or three hours of My Career first” (p. 514).
Sherman, once under suspicion and arrested, discovers just how far the fall can be from his high and mighty position. “He was experiencing the resentment of those who discover that, despite their own grave condition, the world goes on about its business, heartless, without even so much as a long face” (p. 328). He’s used to being important, admired, and in control, but his lies and his pride have caught up with him. It isn’t a happy time for him or his family.
One of the more comical moments and gripping scenes is when Sherman goes to jail. He must be processed and post bail before being released, and while in custody, he’s mildly harassed by another prisoner. At one point, a mouse is discovered in the cell, and the prisoners kick it around. Sherman, in a show of frustration and bravado, picks up the mouse, which bites him, and then he flings it wildly through the bars and onto the floor, where a police officer steps on it. That comic relief was necessary to the tense situation of jail.
Sherman does discover humility in some ways. He realizes just how vulnerable everybody is. His father, also a successful Wall Street trader, whom Sherman calls the Lion, is just an old man with contacts that no longer have much power. “Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later. For the first time he realized that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps, love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life” (p. 432). This theme of realizing how little control and power all of us have and the roles that we play is central to the novel.
We see how vulnerable the boys at the scene of the hit-and-run are. One of them, Henry Lamb, is an “honor student,” according to exaggerated media reports. He was dragged into the criminal activity of stopping cars with the intent to rob because the other wanted to show off. He’s the one who ends up in the hospital in a coma, a condition that begins an investigation that leads to Sherman’s arrest. The other, more of a “career” criminal who has spent time in jail, is the lead witness for the prosecution. Of course, he tells a version of the incident that favors himself and hurts Sherman more than it does Maria. But the prosecutors interviewing him say, “At first he seems so tough, so hard, so . . . you know . . . menacing. He’s a rock, with these dead eyes. . . . But if you just listen to him for five minutes—just listen—you start to hear something else. You hear pain. He’s a boy. . . He’s frightened” (p. 511). We start to understand that the “bonfire of vanities” is really about immaturity and that the characters are all just boys and girls pretending to be grownups. They are play acting, fitting the roles they are expected to play or that they think are expected of them.
Even the journalist who breaks the story of the hit-and-run and brings attention to Henry Lamb’s condition in the hospital is vain and prideful. We know he’s a loafer from the beginning, but toward the end, when his stories are making waves and he’s getting a lot of attention for his journalism in a small unknown rag, he is obsessed with fame and glory. Peter Fallow thinks, “They would know soon enough. I, Fallow!” (p. 579). It becomes almost comical how everybody in the novel, even the seemingly “good” characters, let pride go to their heads.
The community is in an uproar over the running down of their son and “honor student” Henry Lamb. Citizens of the Bronx are protesting, and their community leader, Reverend Bacon, is busy helping them, while making back room deals with other community figures and ruining political careers because of his power. He’s just as corrupt as the rest of them.
The situation in the book reminded me of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. While I’m mostly sympathetic to the young man who was shot, his family, and the community in Ferguson, this book gave me perspective on how we don’t always know the whole story and that everybody seems to have motives of their own. These motives aren’t always pure. However, issues of race are complicated and heartbreaking to me, and this novel’s race issues and protests were reminiscent of what is happening here in middle America as I write. We don’t yet have all of the answers when it comes to getting along and extending courtesy and dignity to all of our citizens. Wolfe’s book, written almost thirty years ago, is eerily familiar of what continues to happen in our communities, in our dealings with others, in marriages, on Wall Street, and in our heads.
Sherman isn’t sufficiently humbled until the epilogue of this book. There, we see a different Sherman, one who is still in trouble, but who may have been taken down a rung or two. We see one who has learned to live on less and maybe even be grateful for what he has, although it isn’t much. Perhaps pride goes before the fall, but maybe that fall can be instructive and graceful in the end.