Sherman McCoy is a wealthy Wall Street trader at his peak, with an opulent home, a beautiful wife, an adorable daughter, and a hell-hot mistress. Although Sherman basks in his success, he’s not just an egoistic snob. He’s frustrated by his wife’s limitless extravagances. He’s disdainful of the superficiality he’s surrounded with. He works hard, he respects his superiors, and he cherishes his little girl. But when he and his mistress inadvertently drive his Mercedes off their planned course and into the Bronx, Sherman’s perfectly aligned world is tipped off its axis by a run-in with two young black men, setting off a slow spin that gains frightening momentum page by page. Sherman is flung into a universe that he was previously untouched by ‒ protesters, press hounds, detectives, thugs, corrupt clergy, hardened attorneys, and a walloping media frenzy.
|Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy|
(photo from mauiwatch.com)
I don’t remember how The Bonfire of the Vanities found its way onto my bookshelf, but based on the author, I knew I had to read it. (And as usual, no, I haven’t seen the movie.) It’s a pop-culture hit from the 1980s, so it feels a little dated, but if you were awake during that time, you’ll love how accurately Wolfe captures the zeitgeist. He titillates your schadenfreude as Wall Street Whitey topples from his pinnacle, but he nurtures your empathy as Sherman is humanized by his struggles. You’ll likely find yourself rooting for Sherman, especially given the distastefulness of most of his foes, whose ego-driven motives are arguably more shameful than his own.
The novel is rife with casual racism and sexism. To me, it seems exaggerated for the era, but I was, admittedly, sheltered, so maybe the attitudes aren’t inaccurate. If you offend easily, you’ll be challenged. Approach it as an education.
Tom Wolfe at the White House Salute to American Authors,
March 2004 (photo credit Susan Sterner)
I’ve been in love with Wolfe since I read The Right Stuff over a decade ago. The Bonfire of the Vanities also delivers in his characteristic sharp, masculine, high-energy style. The setting is old-pop, but the writing prevails. It’s true literature, the kind of stuff that makes Americans proud of our great authors, and Tom Wolfe is one of them.