“DID YOU EVER NOTICE,” the Distinguished Older Editor asked in his patrician, Yale-inflected voice, “that it’s the slowest guys in one’s class who end up selling bonds on Wall Street?” One had heard that, yes. This was in 1985, about the last possible moment for that particular piece of old-school conventional wisdom to be entertained. By 1987, Tom Wolfe’s culture-conquering blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities had arrived to let the literary class know that money was king, money was cool, and maximalism was its proper style of representation.
Wolfe’s first novel was the fiction equivalent of Babe Ruth’s famous called shot—he was going to either knock it out of the park or fall flat on his face. He had spent the previous decade twitting our novelists and short-story writers for their small-batch productions, their fussbudget formalism, their disengagement from the big, brawling spectacle of American life. He called for America’s novelists to be more like Balzac, Dickens, Zola, and journalists like, well, him, and resume writing in the painstakingly mimetic mode of social realism, alert to every detail of dress, decor, language, and, most crucially, status and class. Wolfe then nervily stepped forward to answer his own call, abandoning his secure perch as the generalissimo of the New Journalism for the dodgier pursuit of making stuff up for a living. Plenty of folks in the quality-lit game were rooting for him to fail, and fail big.
Didn’t happen. Instead Wolfe engineered what in ’80s parlance might be called a hostile takeover, producing a crowd-pleasing doorstop humming with the energies of a newly hyperprosperous but still racially riven New York. No novel in recent memory has collided more spectacularly with its cultural moment. It was the era of junk bonds and insider trading, the Predators’ Ball and Barbarians at the Gate, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, and in relating the Job-like and tabloid-ready descent of the bond trader Sherman McCoy, Wolfe satisfied one’s prurient interest in how the moneyed class behaved in its Park Avenue duplexes and Wall Street offices.
Bonfire was an Event of the first order. I attended the publication party at the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria and you never saw such a scrum of high livers, low lifers, and media scum—pimped-out hustlers and sitting judges and street-savvy newspaper columnists and Armani-clad leveraged-buyout kings and gleaming-toothed news anchors and burly off-duty detectives packing heat and literary lights of various wattages and feather-fingered felons dipping their digits into unattended Coach bags and just enough publishing drones to take it all in. Tom Wolfe could have written a great piece about it.
Yes, but twenty-five years on, is The Bonfire of the Vanities any good? As a feat of reportage, certainly yes. One can dip into the book at any page and instantly recapture the febrile energies of that time and place. It remains astonishingly proleptic in its forecast of what would preoccupy (pre-Occupy?) and drive our culture in the succeeding decades. The death grip of finance on our minds, throats, and wallets has survived multiple bubbles and crashes and one near-planetary apocalypse, and no one doubts that there are plenty more such upsets in our future. (A telling index of how far we’ve traveled, cash-nexus-wise: Sherman McCoy is described as being worth more than eight million dollars, as if that amount were not, heh, chump change.) And few novels have percolated so fully in our collective consciousness, from the ubiquity of the Wolfe-coined catchphrase “Masters of the Universe” to the sense of foreboding that seizes every white middle-class driver when he takes the wrong ramp off a city expressway.
Still, Wolfe’s failings in Bonfire remain those he was tasked with in 1987: a gleeful heartlessness, a persistent tendency to mistake caricature for characterization, and a deplorable habit of portraying poor minorities as an easily manipulated rabble. (Ishmael Reed once complained, “Why is it the only thing Tom Wolfe notices about us is our sneakers?”) Much like the culture it so brilliantly satirizes, this flawed masterpiece of the Age of Finance fails to do the necessary moral calculus on our money-besotted time. The result is too much spectacle, not enough meaning, and a queasy morning-after feeling all too appropriate to our present era.
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.