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Book Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Bonfire Of The Vanities Cover

The Bonfire Of The Vanities Cover

This book was a refreshing change from the introspective, thoughtful books I’d been reading. It had been a while since a book had me glued to the bed all day, lying on my right side or lying on my left side, with the A/C turned on or with the A/C turned off, wearing my shirt or not wearing my shirt, with the book in hand or without the book in hand, marveling at a particular turn of phrase or dreaming about juicy jugs and loamy loins (a Wolfism). This lengthy novel at 700 pages was a page turner to say the least and this wasn’t because the plot was wildly inventive or the characters were oh-so-adorable. I turned the pages for Wolfe. Oh, bloody Wolfe!

Reading Tom Wolfe’s prose is akin to subjecting your nostrils to heavy grey diesel fumes from the rear end of an ancient goods carrier truck; acidic, overwhelming but also strangely, perversely pleasant if you are inclined towards such guilty pleasures.

He is a lyrical impressionist. He uses unconventional adjectives and innovative phrases which make sense only at the end of a sentence. And then too, not completely. You only have the impression of what he means. A very fertile impression I sowed and watered to reap a colorful picture of 1980s America.

He possesses the elusive qualities of an excellent satirist, that of unsparing, sharp observation. In other words, he is the reigning king of the suave smartasses. He brandishes a sword from his slovenly sheath every time he introduces a character and cuts him into delicious little literary pieces until all that is left behind is the most shameful of desires and the most hideous of hypocrisies. As a result, most of his characters seem like arrogant, selfish little twits at the outset. It is one of Tom Wolfe’s great achievements as an author that by the end of the book, he had me sympathizing with most of them. It’s not their fault they are that way. We are all hypocritical, we are all terrifyingly materialistic. We’re all the tightest of assholes. Our inner worlds are equally fucked up. These are the just the ones he chose to write about, the news-worthy assholes. But it is in no outright cynical vein that he writes about these buggers. He finds them endearing, these cogs and kings scrambling for their own wants, using each other shamelessly. Quid pro quo. The New York spirit of bonhomie.

The Bororo Indians, a primitive trible who live along the Vermelho River in the Amazon jungles of Brazil, believe that there is no such thing as a private self. The Bororos regard the mind as an open cavity, like a cave or a tunnel or an aracade, if you will, in which the entire village dwells and the jungle grows. In 1969 Jose M.R. Delgado, the eminent Spanish brain physiologist, pronounced the Bororos correct. For nearly three millennia, Western philosophers had viewed the self as something unique, something encased inside each person’s skull, so to speak. “Each person is a transitory composite of materials borrowed from the environment.” said Delgado. The important word was transitory, and he was talking not about years but about hours. He cited experiments in which healthy college students lying on well-lit but soundproofed chambers, wearing gloves to reduce the sense of touch and translucent goggles to block out specific sights, began to hallucinate within hours.

This excerpt merely hints at it and the title pretty much screams it out, but The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a lesson in humility, it’s underlying theme being the lack of control we exercise over our lives irrespective of our wealth, intelligence, power or success, its distilled message being “The Man can get to you before you can get your pants on.” It’s an examination of the axes of conflict that run through a society; class, caste, language, religion and gender. Through its characters, it irreverently assesses the different realities we partake of, how our prejudices and our beliefs which no matter how we justify it, are nothing but a product of our station in society. Man is inseparable from his environment, says Wolfe in loud, clear, refreshingly original words.

We have the protagonist: bond trader Sherman McCoy, self-titled Master Of The Universe, star asshole of Pierce and Pierce, an exclusively white Wall Street firm. He is wedged between a Social X Ray wife whom he despises not-so-secretly (he can drop a ball from the top of her head and hit the floor without encountering anything in between) and a Southern Lemon Tart endowed with luscious lips, undulating hips and exuberant breasts. After a clandestine meeting with his Lemon Tart at the airport, he mistakenly drives into the Bronx. Mean kids Pimp Roll down its grimy streets at night and men beat their wives with glorious abandon, certainly not a place for an eminent upstanding citizen like himself to be loitering around after sundown. A stray tire is thrown in the way of his shiny Mercedes and he screeches and skids the car to a halt. A fierce scuffle ensues after two African-American boys slouch suggestively towards their car. As they make their sweet escape from this attempted carjacking (so they think), his mistress runs down one of the boys. None of them bother to inform the police hoping the thing will magically disappear. Of course it doesn’t.

The aftermath is a circus courtroom trial that takes us through the lives and minds of an ensemble cast of characters firmly hitched to the wagon on their individual roads to greater success; a seedy alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow looking for the big scoop to revive his sagging career; a Bronx assistant district attorney with rippling muscles and an inferiority complex Larry Kramer; canny black political leader Reverend Reginald Bacon; all of whom gleefully use this incident to further their own selfish interests. Through these characters, Wolfe writes about a selfish, behind-the-back—badmouthing America obsessed with image. He cuts through the gloss and grime and reveals the petty minds of rich folk, poor folk, White folk, Black folk, Irish folk, Jewish folk, people who say doesn’t, people who say don’t, people who say tawkin’, people who call Sherman Shuhmun, bros who Pimp Roll, people who laugh hack hack hack hack, people who go heh heh heh heh, people who go ho ho ho ho, people who go haw haw haw haw. Ah, but then it’s all so funny ain’t it? Wolfe certainly makes it seem so.