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Not So Funny Anymore: Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities

2,418 words

Tom Wolfe
The Bonfire of the Vanities
New York: Bantam, 1987

When the Left finally gets around to banning (or burning) classic novels, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities will likely be on the top of the list. Unlike Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bonfire’s great sin is not merely being linguistically taboo but substantively taboo as well. As we all know, Huck Finn uses the word “nigger” quite often in his narration. But his (and Twain’s) sympathy for the runaway Negro slave Jim shines through the story enough to keep the woke rage mob at bay — minus the inevitable scrubbing of the scandalous N-word. There is no analogous saving grace for Bonfire of the Vanities.

Although Wolfe tries to hide it behind the sharp smirk of satire, his book depicts a world of universal racism and ethnocentrism. Furthermore, all of his characters have good reason to be this way, since racial differences are not only real but impossible to overcome. Wolfe portrays every ethnic group in his story in a humorously negative (yet undeniably accurate) light — with the possible exception of the Irish, who come off smelling like the Rose of Tralee by the story’s conclusion. While this frees Wolfe up to tell a compelling story, it also opens himself up to the now-heinous crime of telling the truth about blacks, and, to a lesser extent, about Jews.

Although Bonfire is an ensemble piece, the story focuses mostly on the epic fall from grace of its WASP protagonist Sherman McCoy. Sherman is the top bond trader at his Wall Street firm. He’s full of confidence and talent. He’s tall and good-looking for a man in early middle age, and he lives in a multi-million-dollar apartment on Park Avenue. But he’s bored with his wife and has a little side piece he likes to hit from time to time in a rent-controlled flat. This side piece, a jaded Southern Belle named Maria Ruskin, is married to a loaded old Jew who’s going to kick at any moment and leave her with more money than she could ever spend.

The story gets going when Sherman picks her up at the airport, misses a turn, and gets lost in one of the sketchier neighborhoods of the Bronx. This little ghetto jaunt concludes when Sherman exits the vehicle and nearly trades blows with a pair of young blacks attempting to mug them. Maria takes the wheel, and, after Sherman re-enters on the passenger side, speeds off — but not before she accidentally strikes one of the blacks, nearly killing him.

With this regrettable episode now swirling down the drain, Wolfe spirals its miscellaneous aftermath down after it. This includes the corrupt and irredeemably image-conscious District Attorney Abe Weiss (a Jew), the corrupt and irredeemably cynical defense attorney Tommy Killian (a mick), the corrupt and irredeemably crazy Detective Martin (another mick), the corrupt and irredeemably racist Negro agitator Reverend Bacon (a black), the corrupt and irredeemably alcoholic tabloid writer Peter Fallow (a WASP), and the corrupt and irredeemably pretentious Assistant D.A. Larry Kramer (another Jew).

(I wonder if Wolfe had any Italian-American readers who were miffed that he left out an overweight, mafia connected wop among his dramatis personae. After all, The Bonfire of the Vanities just may be the etymological source of the now-famous Italian-American neologism “fuggedaboudit!” Gold star to anyone who can name the chapter in which this is uttered in the comments.)

Anyway, you see where this is going. Without giving away much that isn’t already on the book’s dustjacket cover, we basically have a big racial incident in which pretty much every ethnic group except the WASPs pretends to care about justice, but in reality only looks out for itself. And just about every main character in the novel with the exception of Killian wishes desperately to yank Sherman down from his splendid Park Avenue perch. You see, they hate him for being white, male, rich, and talented. If they can sacrifice the truth to engineer his catastrophic downfall, they will. The fact that Sherman is entirely innocent of any crime and is guilty only of having an inflated ego and a mistress means nothing. In the eyes of most non-white New Yorkers (and, sadly, a few white ones as well), this is reason enough to put him behind bars — or at least not to defend his cause too strenuously.

Those of us who remember New York City around the time of the Crown Heights riots, the Tawana Brawley hoax, the Central Park jogger incident, the Bernhard Goetz affair, and the Freddy’s Fashion Mart murder will recognize Wolfe’s story as a frighteningly accurate portrayal of how a modern American city can so quickly turn into a racial powder keg. The Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 1987, and most of the incidents I mentioned above occurred after that date. Yet Wolfe nails the details.

Despite everything, the courthouse stirred his soul. Its four great facades were absolute jubilations of sculpture and bas relief. There were groups of classical figures at every corner. Agriculture, Commerce, Industry, Religion, and the Arts, Justice, Government, Law and Order, and the Rights of Man — noble Romans wearing togas in the Bronx! Such a golden dream of Apollonian future!

Today, if one of those lovely classical lads ever came down from up there, he wouldn’t survive long enough to make it to 162nd Street to get a Choco-pop or a Blue Shark. They’d whack him out just to get his toga.

Yes, Wolfe adopts a smartass satirical tone throughout most of the novel. And yes, this does separate the reader somewhat from the heart-wrenching pathos therein. This possibly explains why mainstream critics found Bonfire so hilarious (my copy has about two pages of rave reviews from all the usual suspects: New York Times, Washington Post, etc.). Yet when you strip away all the literary artifice, you have a story which is utterly terrifying, especially in light of the events following the death of drug-addled black felon George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police. Wolfe’s New York City can now be seen as a microcosm of Western Civilization, and Sherman McCoy can now be seen as an everyman white.

You can buy Spencer Quinn’s novel White Like You here.

With non-whites practically everywhere and running the show in many places, it’s only a matter of time before an innocent white will have a violent encounter with a black and be perceived as guilty by an anti-white public and a legal system which is frankly out to get them. And in this system, everyone is racist and no one cares if a white life is ruined. This, in a nutshell, is what The Bonfire of the Vanities is all about. And everything Wolfe predicted in his novel has come true.

In the prologue, the city’s Jewish mayor (who was clearly modeled after New York Mayor Ed Koch) offers perhaps the most powerfully prophetic stream of consciousness passage in modern fiction (it’s long but it’s good):

Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?

Come down from your swell co-ops, your general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon — por qué pagar más! The Bronx — the Bronx is finished for you! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope — little Hong Kongs, that’s all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park — whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island! Do you Saturday do-it-yourselfers really think you’re snug in your little rug? You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, to better insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?

The Bronx courthouse, where Weiss and Kramer work, is known as Gibraltar because it is a heavily fortified bastion of white civilization in a sea of black and brown anarchy. There is a nice park nearby, yet no one will venture into it for fear of being killed. And this includes cops with firearms legally strapped to their waists. For this reason, the judges, clerks, and D.A.s always order their deli lunches delivered.

The language they use is also revealing. The expression “piece of shit” gets bandied about a lot, and it refers to your typical case of a black, brown, or the occasional white committing a crime and getting punished for it. Here is Wolfe describing the expression in its element (ellipses his):

Kramer and Andriutti contemplated this piece of shit without needing any amplification. Every assistant D.A. in the Bronx, from the youngest Italian just out of St. John’s Law School to the oldest Irish bureau chief, who would be somebody like Bernie Fitzgibbon, who was forty-two, shared Captain Ahab’s mania for the Great White Defendant. For a start, it was not pleasant to go through life telling yourself, “What I do for a living is, I pack blacks and Latins off to jail.” Kramer had been raised as a liberal. In Jewish families like his, liberalism came with the Similac and Mott’s apple juice and the Instamatic and Daddy’s grins in the evening. And even the Italians, like Ray Andruitti, and the Irish, like Jimmy Caughey, who were not exactly burdened with liberalism by their parents, couldn’t help but be affected by the mental atmosphere of the law schools, where, for one thing, there were so many Jewish faculty members. By the time you finished law school in the New York area, it was, well. . . impolite! . . . on the ordinary social level. . . to go around making jokes about the yoms. It wasn’t that it was morally wrong. . . it was that it was in bad taste. So it made the boys uneasy, this eternal prosecution of the blacks and Latins.

If the implication isn’t clear, Captain Ahab refers to Weiss, the Great White Defendant refers to Sherman, and “yoms” refers to blacks.

Wolfe spills a lot of ink (quite a bit too much, actually) making light of the dissolution, superficiality, and hypocrisy many of his WASP characters — punctuated quite chillingly with a description of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, as told by a character dying of AIDS. Further, Wolfe often repeats himself while hitting upon the inferiority complexes, tribalism, and vindictiveness of many of his Jewish characters — the passage dealing with Sherman’s boss Gene Lopwitz and his chigger problem provides a memorable example. But it’s Wolfe’s entirely unvarnished treatment of blacks that would get Bonfire banned today.

Front and center is Reverend Bacon, clearly a mishmash of Al Sharpton and Jess Jackson. He’s a charismatic huckster who employs violent henchmen, steals from the Catholic Church, and is not above stirring up city-wide protests in order to railroad the honky Sherman McCoy. Like most black politicians, he’s basically a racist who makes a fine living complaining about racism. Wolfe does not instill into this despicable character a single redeeming trait. Where his white and Jewish characters can be weak, annoying, dishonest, or even cruel, Wolfe paints Reverend Bacon as a vile charlatan.

One of the blacks who assaulted Sherman, Roland Auburn, is nothing but a hardened ghetto thug, complete with his violent outlook, muscular physique, and proud “pimp roll” swagger. Auburn’s partner — the one who gets struck by Sherman’s car — is an innocent yet dimwitted young black named Henry Lamb. Lamb is portrayed as an honor student in the press thanks to Fallow’s shameless mendacity. In truth, Lamb is anything but. Fallow’s phone interview with one of the boy’s teachers at Ruppert High School will induce cringes in anyone who denies racial differences, and laughter in anyone who doesn’t. As Fallow fishes for anything positive to write about Lamb, the reader is treated to dialogue such this:

“Would you describe him as a good student?”

Good doesn’t work too well at Ruppert, either. It’s more ‘Does he attend class or doesn’t he?’”

At one point, the teacher informs Fallow that he should abandon any concept of high academic standards for black children. What would be considered an honor student at Ruppert is merely someone who “attends class, isn’t disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.”

With these three characters, Tom Wolfe is basically telling us that the majority of black people are dumb, violent, and dishonest. He can mask it all he wants in his deft satire, and I am sure it was funny at the time. Now, however, it’s not so funny. Now, places like Gibraltar have been overrun by Roland Auburns, Ruppert High Schools and Henry Lambs are becoming the norm in our education system, and the Reverend Bacons of the world have traded in their bullhorns for rifles and Molotov cocktails. The future has crossed that bridge, and every white person in the West is now living under the cloud of becoming the next Sherman McCoy — with all the life-altering terror that entails.

In Bonfire, Wolfe occasionally overdoes the satire at the expense of plot and character, and he often repeats himself with his themes. This can make the book a bit of a slog in places. However, The Bonfire of the Vanities truly is a great novel — trenchant, prophetic, suspenseful, and oh so relevant. I fear, however, that most white people won’t realize exactly how great this novel is until they see thousands of copies of it being tossed into — you guessed it — bonfires.

How’s that for satire?

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8 Comments

  1. Posted July 20, 2020 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    I read it when it came out, and I’m really dating myself here. I indeed do remember the business with Lopwitz crabbing about getting a fireplace in his skyscraper office, then getting bit by bugs from the firewood.

    Other than that, a major theme was the egomaniac protagonist getting taken down. A lot of this recurred in A Man In Full, but with a much different setting.

    • Lord Shang
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:36 am | Permalink

      Me, too. Read TBOTV in 1988, when I could get a paperback. Still have it. Parts of it I recall quite well (including the long verbatim passage Quinn included above, and the ending; also, the queasy feeling Sherman gets when he realizes that he missed the correct freeway exit, and the obnoxious Bacon); other aspects not at all. What’s strange is that I read A Man in Full about 20 years later (maybe a dozen years ago), and mainly remember only the young white working class guy and his travails. In both novels I identified strongly with the white guys, despite their differences in wealth and status.

      I’m not sure I would classify anything by Wolfe as true literature. But he does write excellent popular fiction (though I have not read his other two novels).

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        If it’s not true literature, then it’s nonetheless about as good as it gets these days.

        • Lord Shang
          Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:50 am | Permalink

          Maybe. I’m kind of a liberal type in my literary tastes. I dislike non-linear narratives generally (I couldn’t read more than a few pages of Gravity’s Rainbow; I hated Beloved, too), but otherwise, I really do prefer books generally held by “elites” to be classics. It’s a very instructive exercise to read some contemporary prize-winner, and immediately follow it with a great European novel from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The difference in quality is usually palpable.

          I prefer Wolfe to Updike, but I have to agree with the latter: Wolfe’s work is interesting and observant popular fiction, not real literature. The writing is pedestrian, and the plots shallow. But these days there just aren’t really excellent novels being produced, at least in English.

    • Spencer J. Quinn
      Posted July 23, 2020 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Hi BA and LS,

      My metric for great lit is basically, does it enthrall in the short term and does it linger in the long run. Bonfire did both for me, therefore it has the potential to be truly great. However, its technical flaws (thematic repetition and a general lack of focus in the first half of the book) and the author’s over-the-top satirical attitude do take something from it. Regardless, there is enough there for the novel to last a long time, especially in an age in which whites are becoming more and more race conscious. I do think it’s a great novel, although perhaps not as great as the best produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Agree about Gravity’s Rainbow. 130 pp was about all I could endure.

  2. Tye Rogerson
    Posted July 20, 2020 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    This really is a fantastic book. Even though I think he said he hadn’t read it, Jared Taylor had mentioned this once when someone asked for redpilled novels. I’m sure there are others, but what Tom Wolfe was able to pull off was incredible. I usually only read non-fiction, but this was worth it.

  3. Alex
    Posted July 20, 2020 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I’m dating myself as well but I also remember the Howard Beach incident in 1986.

  4. Vegetius
    Posted July 20, 2020 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Someone ought to write something about that group of post-war Southern writers who made their way to New York during the mid-20th Century: Wolfe, Styron, Capote, McCullers, etc. It would be interesting to compare them with the ones that stayed home. A metaphor for something larger? I don’t know.

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