Tom Wolfe ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’

The Mayor shook his head some more. He found the Christian churches baffling. When he was growing up, the goyim were all Catholics, unless you counted the shvartzer, which nobody did. They didn’t even rate being called goyim. The Catholics were two types, the Irish and the Italians. The Irish were stupid and liked to fight and inflict pain. The Italians were stupid and slob-like. Both were unpleasant, but the lineup was easy enough to comprehend. He was in college before he realised there was this whole other set of goyim, the Protestants. He never saw any. There were only Jews, Irishmen and Italians in college, but he heard about them, and he learned that some of the most famous people in New York were this type of goyim, the Protestants, people like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilt’s, The Roosevelt’s and the Astor’s, the Morgans. The term Wasp was invented much later.

Reading Wolfe’s Bonfire is a deep dive into the 1980’s New York and in particular to the Bronx and Manhattan. As Wolfe points out ‘Wasps were rare in the Bronx’, the Bronx which had been Irish was now run by the Jews, see the Mayors quote at the introduction, but the inhabitants, the electorate were now overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic. In this widely painted story Wolfe takes us into the heart and motives of all of the main protagonists and nobody comes out of it smelling of roses.

The story concerns a Wall Street bond salesman named Sherman Mc Coy, a Wasp who lives on Park Avenue, son of a Wall Street man, the Lion of Dunning Sponget, the epitome of entitled. But Sherman is worried and feels guilty about everything, about under achieving, about overspending, about his wife who controls him. Sherman is having an affair with a rich, ‘foxy’ lady, Maria and meets her in a seedy rent controlled apartment which she sublets. Nothing seems to be going right for Sherman who after making a weak excuse to his wife to go out, tries to call Maria from the phone box to try to see her:

He picks up the telephone and cradles it between his shoulder and his ear and fishes around in his pocket for a quarter and drops it in the slot and dials.
Three rings and a woman’s voice: ‘Hello?’
But it was not Maria’s voice. He fingered it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: ‘May I speak to Maria, please?’
The woman said: ‘Sherman? Is that you?’
‘Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialled his own apartment! He’s aghast – paralysed!

This is a piece of comedy but is also typical of Sherman as the book begins, he freezes before his wife, his guilt spoils his evening and then doesn’t know how to lie.

The problems begin for Sherman when he picks up Maria from La Guardia and takes a wrong turn of the highway and finds himself in the Bronx, he is immediately lost as he has never been here before and the Manhattan grid system just doesn’t continue on out here. What they see through the car windows is a whole new world to them and as they search a way back onto the freeway they are scared. And the the incident! The ramp onto the freeway is blocked by rubbish and as Sherman gets out to move it two black youths come towards him asking if they can help, Maria screams at him to get back to the car, he runs at the tallest of the two and knocks him to one side then jumps into the passenger side and Maria accelerates away, but they hear a light thump and the smaller of the two disappears from the rear mirror. Sherman, still feeling guilty wants to report the incident but Maria says she was driving and that she doesn’t want to report it. The youngest of the two youths goes to hospital and is treated for a bad wrist, the next day, after having told his mother of the car, a Mercedes, of the two whites in the car and of a part of the plate number, he returns to hospital and falls into a coma. These are the facts but then self interest is invited to the feast.

The reverend Bacon, a black minister pushes the case into the news, thinking not of any penal case but of a civil case against the hospital. The Bronx District attorney, with an election due, wants to find and make an exemplary case of this white man in the Bronx, to show that it isn’t the Johannesbronx, so when they discover that the car belongs to Sherman, Bacon whips up the press, the civil case against a rich wasp will be with more than the case against the hospital, the district attorney couldn’t ask for a better profile to prosecute and so Sherman is taken down town to be booked based on the second black youth, the Crack king of Evergreen Avenue’s testimony in a plea bargain to drop all charges on him who puts Sherman driving and hitting the boy in a straight stretch of road. They can’t resist taking him in before the press and doing this one by the book, exemplified by the exchange between Sherman and another person in the holding cells:

‘What are you here for?’
‘Oh man, 220, 265, 225.’The fellow threw his hand out, as if to take in the entire world. ‘Drugs, handguns, gambling paraphernalia – ayyyyyy, every piece of bullshit, you know?’
The man seemed to take a certain pride in his calamity.
‘You hit somebody with your car?’ He asked once more. He apparently found this trivial and unmanly…..
‘You got cigarettes?’
‘No, they took everything away from me even my shoestrings.’
‘No shit?’ He looked at Sherman’s shoes. He himself still had on shoelaces, Sherman noticed.

Sherman’s attorney, an ex-prosecutor is in it strictly for the money, dropping him when his money runs out. Sherman is able to show, via a recording that Maria’s testimony against him is false and the charges against him are dropped. Sherman is one of the only people to come through this better than he was, no longer continually feeling guilty in his life or indecisive as when, in front of the detectives, he throws out of his apartment the representative of his neighbours that want him to leave their apartment block:

‘You know, I have a confession to make,’ said Sherman. He made himself smile again. ‘Until that sonofabitch came up here, I was thinking of blowing my brains out. Now I wouldn’t dream of it. That would solve all his problems, and he’d dine out on it for a month and be damned sanctimonious while he was at it.

I’m afraid my write up really is unable to show anything of the complexities of this great book.

First Published in English as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1987 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s