Book Review: Bonfire of the Vanities

What can I say about Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe?

Bonfire is considered by many people to be Wolfe’s best book and one of the best novels ever written. Even though I missed the 80’s, I was still captivated by his portrayal of New York Wall Street and racial tension and courtroom drama. A masterpiece.

According to Richard Ben Cramer in New New Journalism by Robert Boynton, Wolfe doesn’t produce masterpieces without trying:

I used to read Wolfe and think, "Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!" Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, "God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all."

Ah, we non-geniuses can take heart. Hard work does count for something. It even matters to Tom Wolfe.

7 comments on “Book Review: Bonfire of the Vanities
  • I don’t want to play staff pedant but calling Bonfire of the Vanities one of the greatest novels ever written knocked me off my stool. Bonfires is a wonderful beach book but nobody ever confused it with literature.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Richard —

    What, then, is “literature”?

    I think it’s much richer than beach reading.

    If we allowed the term “great literature” to be used for books written in the past 100 years, Bonfire would be on it. But you’re probably right — the term as it’s used now wouldn’t allow for the inclusion of such a modern work…no matter how brilliantly it captures the essence of today.

  • We just got back from Cabo. I hope you have had some good family time. Sitting by the pool, I noticed Hannah had brought along “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, a book I had bought her several months earlier and had never read.

    I had picked up Beloved because several months ago the NY Times Book Review did its quarter century ranking of the best fiction published during the past 25 years (forgive my ignorance of how to create a hyper-link). Beloved ranked number one.

    Most of my reading, like yours, is non-fiction. I try to keep up with contemporary fiction but I am far from comprehensive so I dont pretend to be an authority, but within the first couple pages of Beloved, I knew I was in the presence of a truly immortal work. By the end, I was in awe of the world Morrison created.

    Bonfire is a beach book because its characters are stereotypical and its plot is predictable. Wolfe builds anticipation, then delivers. He does this repeatedly as reflection of the craft of the “good read” aka bestseller. Accessibility in fiction is a good thing but it is not the only thing, and it is not a good thing if the story demands complexity in language, plot or character that happens to challenge the attention span of the beach-going public. At poolside, my niece, who is graduating high school in June and attending Wesleyan in the fall, commented that her AP English class gave Beloved mixed reviews. I was later scolded by my wife and daughter for allowing that Allison would be better served by my recommendation than the consensus of her private school classmates in Dallas. (Beloved is all about race so I wasn’t surprised that it would make its share of upper class Texans uncomfortable).

    Ben, I’m not trying to be critical – you know I love what you are doing. I just think you are way off the mark with your praise of Bonfire, and I certainly don’t think its one person’s opinion versus another’s. Embracing the new new thing does not require one to discard the canon of world literature and the standards established by the best works, many of which are old and many of which are quite new.

    Except for this small edit, keep up the good work.

  • Richard,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I am less an authority than you on fiction, and in fact I have read so little fiction that anything I say on the matter should immediately be questioned.

    I’m sure there’s also a phrase that describes the basic instinct to think what’s happening / written NOW is more important than what’s happened in the past. For example, political pundits often deem the upcoming election as “the most important ever”. Yeah, right.

    So thanks for calling me out. It doesn’t mean, however, I concede the point. I still think you’re sidebrushing Bonfire too quickly. The characters may have been stereotypical and plot predictable, but who cares? The richness and depth of the characters matter. And Wolfe did a stunning job on both these fronts. I didn’t live during the gilded 80’s in New York, but reading Bonfire I felt like I was in a movie that captured the real essence of the scene in a way few other books I’ve read have.

    Loving the new new thing and all the journalism it entails doesn’t mean I have to discard the old — dare I say Chicago-preferred? 🙂 — canon of world literature. I just think it’s hard to compare a fundamentally new genre that Wolfe invented with the “classics”. If this is creeping into a kind of relativistic “There’s-no-such-thing-as-a-great-book- it’s-all-a-matter-of-personal-taste” argument, then my apologies, because I only believe that half-way.

    For the record, I too like Toni Morrison, though I’ve only read “Song of Solomon,” which had the brilliant last line, “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” I will read “Beloved” at some point, but not because the NYTBR says so. The NYTBR is too snarky for my taste — though I still love it and read it each week.

    Thanks again for the thoughts Richard.

  • I think of Tom Wolfe as a journalist, not as a fiction writer. I have read better fiction, but Tom Wolfe is absolutely brilliant at capturing the zeitgeist of a place or an era. If you liked BOTV, Ben, I think you may like A Man In Full even more!

    Oh, and another writer who is good at that kind of thing is David Foster Wallace. It’s the 10 year anniversary of [I]Infinite Jest[/I] – I highly recommend it.

  • Maria said it all… except that if you want a real masterpiece of New Journalism, check out Norman Mailers “Army’s of the Night.”

    As for the “Gilded 80’s,” check out the source material – “Barbarians at the Gate,” by Bryan Burroughs. So much more exciting and unpredictable than Bonfire because it was true.

    As for creeping relativism, put aside comparison entirely. No either-or, no top ten list. The NY Times rankings were useful to me because they collected the opinions of 150 respected writers the NY Times solicited. For a book to be selected by this process didn’t mean I would like it; it just meant to me I shouldn’t ignore it. As I said, I don’t read that much fiction, so my interest in the NY Times list was to improve my odds at finding something worth my time.

    Keep up the good work, and enjoy Boulder.

  • I couldn’t resist jumping in. (In fact even as Ben tempted me, I was showing this blog to my cousins and saw the discussion.) I am a big reader of Wolfe, as Ben knows. Most people don’t think of him as a great novelist in that, as Richard pointed out, he doesn’t really create characters or situations. In fact, Wolfe’s famous manifesto about the need for writers to go out and report on the world around them, a la Zola (which means that, despite all the exclamation points, he doesn’t see himself as doing something qualitatively new on paper), calls on them not to invent but to describe. Wolfe certainly does this extraordinarily well; you know what it’s like to, say, feel barricaded in the court house in the South Bronx (Bonfire) or endure a drunken frat-boy bacchanal (Charlotte Simmons), but none of it is really imagined. It’s fictionalized from reports and observation. And his characters are all the same types he was reporting on from the 60s onward–Masters of the Universe (Sherman McCoy, the frat boys in Charlotte Simmons who await Wall Street jobs), “social x-rays” they’re cheating on, etc. It’s the same people, at different points in the same trajectory, which is basically what interests Wolfe about life. So I don’t think he’s a great novelist in the sense that his works are imaginative creations, which is what most people take a “great novel” to be. I do enjoy them, but I’m not sure they’re qualitatively different from his reporting, and most people to whom this distinction matters would say that that lack of difference means he’s not a great novelist. I suppose the question is where that takes any of us. I mean, I like and enjoy his work, abhor his politics (his last nonfiction collection, Hooking Up, is so ludicrously and embarrassingly out-of-touch with the contemporary world, in this Toryish way, that I’m surprised they let him publish it), and will keep reading him–if not to learn more about culture these days, to see what Tom Wolfe is thinking.

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