The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was #8 on my 2020 Reading Challenge, a book with one of the deadly sins in the title. (Note that I consider grounded knowledge of one’s virtues and strengths to be a different thing from vanity, but I’ve already read Pride and Prejudice more than once.)
There is not a single likable character in this book, not even the six-year-old, who isn’t even old enough to know better. You know she’ll be poisoned and grow up to be just another lemon tart/social x-ray. Wait, I take that back–young Henry Lamb seems to be a good person, but we never hear from him because he spends the whole book in a coma.
But that’s okay, because the characters aren’t supposed to be likable. They are despicable, because they are parodies, and very well done parodies. (I’ve heard that Tom Wolfe is famous for satire, but the only other book of his I’ve read is The Right Stuff, which I’ve read a few times and thoroughly enjoyed but for different reasons.) Essentially, we’ve got:
– Sherman McCoy, Master of the Universe bond trader on Wall Street, desperate to make the killing that will let him pay off the huge mortgage on his luxury apartment, always careful to position his face so his perfectly aristocratic jawline is at its best angle;
– Judy McCoy, Sherman’s wife, interior decorator and Social X-Ray;
– Maria Ruskin, Sherman’s mistress, gold-digger extraordinaire, married to a much older, very much richer man for obvious reasons (it is even suggested that while husband-hunting, she consulted actuarial tables);
– Larry Kramer, assistant prosecuting attorney looking to make a name for himself so he can get a raise and be able to afford a clandestine affair with a former juror, The Girl With the Brown Lipstick, because his magnificent sternocleidomastoid muscles might not be enough to impress her;
– Peter Fallow, a hopelessly alcoholic British journalist working in the U.S., desperate to get his writing mojo back and shamelessly manipulated by;
– Reverend Bacon, a black activist who not only promotes, but seeks to capitalize on, the cause celebre of the injustice done to;
– Henry Lamb, the young black man who is the victim of a hit-and-run in the Bronx.
Bonfire of the Vanities not only encapsulates the 80s and Wall Street excess (still relevant today, sadly), it lampoons WASPS, racism, sexism, keeping up with the Joneses, multiculturalism in general, law and order, use and abuse of privilege and power, and honor (or lack thereof) among thieves.
Bookshelves: modern-classic, satire, schadenfreude, dark-humor