The Bonfire of the Vanities

This year sees the 20th anniversary of Tom Wolfe’s landmark novel The Bonfire of the Vanities of 1987. Seven years prior to its publication I had been shaken to be told by a biblical scholar that Ecclesiastes doesn’t belong in the Old Testament. It is evidently a Greek text, he proclaimed, and is not consistent with Hebrew thought. In particular, the celebrated passage of Ecclesiastes 1:2 is a sad-eyed acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of human life. (full text here The things we toil for, and in which we take pleasure and pride, have no lasting significance or value. ‘All is Vanity’.


This insight, and the name of an episode in Florence in 1497, provide the title for the absurdities which Wolfe describes in 20th century New York City. The Falò delle vanità’ was the burning of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. On 7 February 1497, supporters of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects on the Mardi Gras festival. Such bonfires were not invented by Savonarola, but had been a common accompaniment to the outdoor sermons of San Bernadino di Siena in the first half of the 15th century. The focus of the destruction was on objects that might tempt one to sin, including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and even musical instruments. Other targets included books that were deemed to be immoral, such as works by Boccaccio, and manuscripts of secular songs, as well as artworks, including paintings and sculpture.


The very embodiment of vanity in The Bonfire of the Vanities is Sherman McCoy, known to himself as a “Master of the Universe”.  He is a millionaire bond trader at Wall Street’s ‘Pierce and Pierce’, where the roar of the trading floor ‘resonates with his very gizzard’. McCoy’s life is destroyed when he and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, accidentally enter the Bronx at night while they are driving back to Manhattan from JFK. Finding the ramp back to the highway blocked by trash cans and a tyre, McCoy exits the car to clear the way. Approached by two black men whom they perceive – uncertainly, in Sherman’s case – as predators, McCoy and Ruskin flee. Having taken the wheel of the car, which fishtails as they race away, Ruskin apparently strikes one of the two, a ‘skinny boy’.


Peter Fallow, an alcoholic journalist on the tabloid ‘City Light’, is soon given the opportunity of a lifetime when he is persuaded to write a series of articles about Henry Lamb, the black youth who has allegedly been the victim of a hit and run by a wealthy white driver. Fallow cynically tolerates the manipulations of the Reverend Bacon, a Harlem religious and political leader who sees the hospitalized boy as a public housing success story gone wrong. Fallow’s series of articles on the matter ignites protests and media coverage. Up for re-election and accused of foot-dragging in the Lamb case, the media-obsessed Bronx District Attorney Abe Weiss pushes for McCoy’s arrest. The evidence consists of McCoy’s car, which matches the description of the vehicle involved in the hit and run, plus McCoy’s evasive response to police questioning. The arrest all but ruins McCoy; distraction at work causes him to  mess up a $600 million bond deal. He is forced to take a leave of absence from his job. His Park Avenue friends ostracize him, and his wife leaves him.


Hoping to impress his boss as well as an attractive former juror, Shelly Thomas, Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer aggressively prosecutes the case, opening with an unsuccessful bid to set McCoy’s bail at $250,000. Released on bail, McCoy is besieged by demonstrators who are protesting outside his $3 million Park Avenue property.


Fallow hears a rumour that Ruskin was at the wheel of McCoy’s car when it allegedly struck Lamb, but Ruskin has fled the country. Trying to smoke out the truth, on the pretext of interviewing the rich and famous, Fallow meets Ruskin’s husband, Arthur, at a pricey French restaurant. While recounting his life, Arthur has a fatal seizure, as disturbed patrons and an annoyed maître d’ look on. Ruskin is forced to return to the United States for his funeral, where McCoy confronts her about being the only witness. Fallow, hoping also to talk with Ruskin, overhears this.


Fallow’s write-up of the association between McCoy and Ruskin prompts Assistant D.A. Kramer to offer Ruskin a deal: corroborate the other witness and receive immunity, or be treated as an accomplice. Ruskin recounts this to McCoy while he is wearing a wire. When a private investigator employed by McCoy’s lawyer, Tommy Killian, discovers a recording of a conversation that contradicts Ruskin’s grand jury testimony, the judge assigned to the case declares the testimony ‘tainted’ and dismisses the case.


As the epilogue, a fictional New York Times article informs us that Fallow has won the Pulitzer Prize and married the daughter of City Light owner Gerald Steiner, while Ruskin has escaped prosecution and remarried. McCoy’s re-trial ends in a hung jury, split along racial lines. Kramer is removed from the prosecution after it is revealed he was involved with Shelly Thomas in a sexual tryst at the apartment formerly used by Ruskin and McCoy. It is additionally revealed that McCoy has lost a civil trial to the Lamb family and, pending an appeal, has a $12 million liability, which has resulted in the freezing of his assets. The all-but-forgotten Henry Lamb succumbs to his injuries; McCoy, penniless and estranged from his wife and daughter, awaits trial for vehicular manslaughter.


‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport’.


You may, or may not, have needed a 752 page caustic satire on the money-fevered 1980s to grasp that.


752 pages in Vintage Classics

First published 1987

ISBN  978-0099541271



Tom Wolfe

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