July 01, 1988

Bronx Cheer

Filed under: Archive,Books

The Bonfire Of The vanities
By Tom Wolfe
Jonathan Cape

The Difference between the old journalism and the New (as Tom Wolfe himself called it) is that the New Journalism is writ large – in the Upper Case Apt Phrase – and writ often, with hyperactive syntax, repetitions of the key word and triple pause dots stringing together gauds of aphoristic wit.

So when it is announced that Tom Wolfe, an author of ten books which make the word best-seller seem unduly modest, has written his first novel, it is going to warrant at least . . . three dots of pause in itself. And what has the Author chosen to do? Did he hire a railway station in Russia to write the Big One or was he beckoned to some slimmer, subtler intention?

On first sight The Bonfire of the Vanities looks like an eruption of them. It is the sort of large tome which could cause you internal injuries if it fell on you. In fact, you may need a wheelbarrow to get it home from the shop. But it’s worth it.

One has a terror in the first few pages that this book might be like Brilliant Creatures, Clive James’s first attempt, which was not so much a novel as an endless series of desperately clever paragraphs on individual index cards. But Tom Wolfe reveals almost immediately what we should have already known, that he was a novelist all along.

Wolfe takes to this think-up-your-own- story business like a quill to ink because his lupine satire has always been concerned with shaping fictions out of life Itself. He has a Dickensian sense of landscape as metaphor and decor as objective correlative. The actual movers and makers of history he presents as stock types, whether Hefner, Kool-Aid Kesey, Bernstein and Huey Newton or, more recently, the boys in the band with the Right Stuff.

It is hard to figure Wolfe at times because, like Gore Vidal, he is a dandy. He dresses like a Southern planter who thinks they won the Civil War but he is waspish in tone not politics. Wolfe coined the term Radical Chic in order to distinguish it from the truly radical, because, again like Vidal, he cherishes the thread of steely conscience which stitches together the best in American constitutional idealism. Similarly, he despises the toothless wardheelers and barfing profiteers who have turned the great Republic into a bag of pus.

Wolfe is interested in power and, in his realaesthetik, that means Male Power. His books are invariably about men but when he gets it right he makes bonfires of their vanities before you can say spontaneous combustion. He writes like a kid who was bullied at school and never forgot what they looked like. He is alerted to every nuance of machismo and pumps irony about everything from body-building to the Pimp-roll, his neologism for street swagger.

Take Sherman McCoy, the hero of his first fiction, for example. Sherman is an investment banker for the prestigious firm of Pierce and Pierce. Firms in the novel all sound like Vice figures from a morality play – McCoy’s father’s law firm is Dunning, Sponger and Leach, another is called Curry, Coad and Pestorall.

McCoy, the Park Avenue Knickerbocker financier is what Wolfe calls a Master of the Universe which, he reminds us, are: “A set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that (McCoy’s) otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with. They looked like Norse gods who lifted weights and they had names like Dracon, Ahor, Mangelred and Blutong. They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys.”

Wolfe’s journalist’s fascination with meaningful trivia and penchant for brand-name verisimilitude is everywhere evident. He calculates McCoy’s post-tax earnings and expenditure as lovingly a5 an accountant. Food, clothing, furnishings and interiors – the trappings of New York high life – are given bravura description: “They went through the doorway, into the apartment’s entry gallery. Such voices! Such delight! Such laughter! Sherman faced catastrophe in his marriage – and the police were circling – and yet the hive – the hive! – the hive – the sonic waves of the hive made his very innards vibrate. Faces full of grinning, glistening, boiling. teeth! How fabulous and fortunate we are, we few, to be in these upper rooms together with our radiant and incarnadine glows!

“The entry gallery was smaller than Sherman’s, but whereas his (decorated by his wife, the interior designer) was grand and solemn, this one was dazzling, effervescent. The walls were covered in a brilliant Chinese-red silk, and the silk was framed by narrow gilded moldings, and the moldings were framed by a broad burnt-umber upholsterer’s webbing, and the webbing was framed by more gilded moldings, and the light of a row of brass sconces made the gilt gleam, and the glow of the gilt and the Chinese-red silk made all the grinning faces and lustrous gowns yet more glorious.”

But Sherman McCoy took a wrong turn in Manhattan and is propelled by the freeway into the Bronx where he meets the dark side of New York. His involvement in a hit-and-run accident has him cornered and vilified by institutions and organisations of every stripe and Wolfe’s baleful account of McCoy’s karma takes on Swiftian proportions as a parade of characters get in for their cut. Larry Kramer, Assistant DA in the Bronx, sees McCoy as the Great White defendant, Thomas Killian his Irish attorney sees a giltedged client, Peter Fallow, a winesoaked Englishman, becomes the doyen of the yellow press and Reverend Bacon, the black Elmer Gantry sees a chance to topple the mayoral elections.

The Bonfire of the Vanities presents New York as preternaturally corrupt, bloated with wealth and, in the scenes in the Bronx, feral beyond reason. Courts, police and bureaucrats toil pointlessly in a morass of contradiction and psychotic self-interest and the decline and fall of Sherman McCoy becomes the vortex for Wolfe’s acidulous analysis:

‘For nearly three millennia, Western philosophers had viewed the self as something unique, something encased inside each person’s skull, so to speak. Not so, said Delgado, the eminent Spanish brain physiologist, ‘Each person is a transitory composite of materials borrowed from the environment.’ Without the entire village, the whole jungle, occupying the cavity, they had no minds left.

“He cited no investigations of the opposite case, however, he did not discuss what happens when one’s self – or what one takes to be one’s self- is not a mere cavity open to the outside world but has suddenly become an amusement park to which everybody, todo el mundo, tout le monde, comes scampering, skipping and screaming, nerves atingle, loins aflame, ready for anything, all you’ve got, laughs, tears, moans, giddy thrills, gasps, horrors, whatever, the gorier the merrier. Which is to say, he told us nothing of the mind of a person at the centre of a scandal in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”

Wolfe like most satirists has no programme of reform, he certainly has no Five Year Plan, but he knows a stink when it’s going up his nose and it’s called Wall Street. So in his moral fable he anatomises the imbecilities of the various sternocleidomastoid-rippling Masters of the Universe as only his lush, curdled style can do.

Unlike his other later work Wolfe does not confine himself to narrow sorties against excess. The Bonfire of the Vanities burns with a hard gemlike fierceness on many fronts and while we are diverted and amused, Tom Wolfe persuades us more tellingly than he ever has before that, for all its glamour, late capitalist New York is a city of dreadful night.

“Bronx Cheer”, The Adelaide Review, No.53, July, 1988, p.27.0

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