The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 659 pages, $19.95
Where does one go to seek the Truth? No, not about what God whispered to Moses on the Mount. I'm talking about the simple truth, the real stories behind what you heard today at the office, what you read last night in the Metro section.
Catching on to what actually occurs in this cracked-up econo-system of ours is harder than it might first appear. It's the Information Age! We're swimming in data—we've got printed matter, audiovisual communications, and high-speed modem hook-ups coming out of our silicon chips.
But the hardware is for nothing if somewhere a human knucklehead doesn't bother to punch out the Truth. And the Truth is only one button on a big, flashy keyboard. It's rarely the one with the highest dollar (or ego) payout. The Truth? It's like a real bad honesty trip, man. Not much in it, generally.
All of which creates an enormous scarcity value for one Tom Wolfe. Wolfe has witnessed some of the juiciest sub-segments of contemporary American life and made himself an indispensable late-20th-century travel companion merely by telling it straight.
Just when the 1960s had scammed funseekers into thinking the tune was Love, Revolution, and Peace, Wolfe traipsed through the incense and mirrors to find that the actual ratio of Style divided by Commitment closely approximated infinity (to wit: Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers). Then, with a devilish disregard for fashion, he unearthed the bona fides behind the patriotic fig leaf that clothed the space race. It took a writer with The Right Stuff.
But Wolfe is more than honest; he's a brilliant yarn spinner. Trailing him through our times leads to both Truth and pleasure, an incredible two-for-one in today's depreciating retail book market. And an even better bargain may have arrived. Until now, Wolfe has been constrained to tell us what was literally (virtually, anyway) true.
Now, with The Bonfire of the Vanities he gives us the Truth with his set of facts. His set is better. This new mega-novel is a blast from start to finish, an excursion into the way it works in '80s America via a fantasy containing more Truth than you'll read in 30 rival nonfiction works or 1,000 newspapers or 100,000 sociology texts.
Set in New York City throughout, the story weaves relentlessly (you will zip through 659 pages) around a nucleus of classic characters so fleshy you can practically smell their B.O. There is Sherman McCoy, the $980,000-a-year Wall Street bond broker—38 years old, Ivy League, all the right connections, on top o' the world, a "Master of the Universe." His personal crash, rivaling the one endured globally on Black Monday, provides a riveting centerline for the plot.
The Reverend Reginald Bacon is a Harlem preacher/entrepreneur, a community activist with a keen passion for social justice and an even keener nose for the bottom line. While the poor Mr. McCoy is clearly a socialite on the Street, the Reverend is dubbed by the Village Voice a "street socialist." He raps, he jives, he scares white folk—he's perfect (and entirely cable-ready).
Larry Kramer went to Columbia Law but didn't snap at the bigshot downtown sinecure. He went (by subway) to the D.A.'s office in the Bronx. It's a tough way to make a living, but it has its little glories. Even a Good Man, like Mr. Kramer, might like to secure them, too.
And Peter Fallow, journalist. A Brit in Gotham, he revels in sneering at the boorish Ugly Americans who swirl about him and lives for the freebies he cadges out of them. He is young, hip, liberal, semitalented, and willing to trade his soul for an ounce of professional notice. Or a shot of Canadian Rye.
These fellows, and their worthy associates in crime and passion, come together in a modern-day scandal célèbre. It's savage social satire dressed in drag as a gripping suspense novel. And Wolfe does much more than create real fictions: he is an explosively high-powered writer.
While airborne with his soaring prose, he drops some gooey stuff on the established left. The professional Progressives must read Wolfe and weep. Since Marx infected them with the notion that The Struggle will set us free, they have been unable to get away from some hokey derivative of class analysis. Even when pointedly not thinking about economic divisions, they must divvy the world up into mutually exclusive sets of Good/Bad, Pure/Greedy, Public-Spirited/Self-Interested.
Wolfe operates on the eminently more reasonable model that everybody's got an angle to play. In his world, they're all trying to jump aboard the Good Ship Success; different people just walk different planks. The beauty of it all is that Wolfe snares rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, uptown and downtown. He's an equal-opportunity trasher.
I'm not going to spill the details of this storybook, on advice of counsel. The plot is wild and woolly. But I'll dangle a sample out-take that is not instrumental to the larger spellbinder.
There's the affair wherein a successful but nonaffluent married man is falling inexorably for the devastatingly gorgeous young woman before him but is desperate to cheat on a budget. "He was consumed," Wolfe details, "by feelings of lust and poverty."
It will not surprise that hormones triumph over fiscal responsibility, and a few hundred pages anon our man's intended conquest is being wined and dined to allow him room to inflict a heart-wrenching treatise on why he, in his daily chores, cares so very, very much (a soliloquy lifted almost verbatim from his boss's lecture to him earlier that day): "I want to make a difference," he pleads. And she? "She was thinking about the way men are in New York. Every time you go out with one, you have to sit there and listen to two or three hours of My Career first."
The times are strange when speech is free and news abundant but men must turn to novels for Truth. The veracity of this tome is a slap at those charged with informing us about what's knocking around out there.
If our correspondents had smaller agendas and larger wills, this book might pass as just the fanciful images of a great muse. Instead, it offers itself as a powerful exposition of the way facts are twisted, justice perverted, and the Truth held hostage to the pomposities and vanities of America's comical ruling elites. Rarely do we get nearly so much insight in one volume, and this one includes horselaughs, too. Rush out and gobble it up before Tom Wolfe takes out a $21,000-a-month mortgage and has to start thinking more seriously about his own little agenda.
Contributing Editor Thomas Hazlett teaches the Truth about economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.