Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is a sprawling, multi-faceted tale of racism, ambition, and unfortunate decisions. Top Wall Street stockbroker Sherman McCoy takes a wrong turn after picking up his lover from the airport and finds himself lost in the Bronx. When his car breaks down and he is approached by two black teenagers, he and the woman panic and speed off, clipping one of the teens. Due to the illicit nature of his errand, McCoy keeps the incident a secret from the police and his wife. The whole thing would likely have gone unnoticed if not for the ambition and lust of a handful of other men.
Peter Fallow is a washed-up tabloid journalist whose greatest moment seems to have come and gone, until he is put on the scent of the hit-and-run. Spun as a travesty of racial justice, the story takes on a life of its own in Fallow’s hands. If the kid had been white, Fallow claims, the police would have stopped at nothing to find the perpetrator.
District attorney Abe Weiss is up for re-election in the Bronx, and Fallow’s allegations of racism and foot-dragging are hurting his chances of re-election. If Weiss’s voters want to see McCoy hang, then they’ll see McCoy hang, and let the devil take the evidence.
Larry Kramer is an overworked, underpaid assistant district attorney. For years, he’s been putting young black kids in jail for petty crimes, and the carrot of a Great White Defendant is too much for him to turn down. Likewise, the thought of Shelly Thomas, an attractive young juror from a previous trial, lends him a certain energy, and he prosecutes the case with a vigor rarely seen in these courts.
Right and wrong are quickly subverted to the political monster. When a man’s chance for advancement – or even to have a pretty girl think highly of him – are on the line, guilt and innocence seem to have little to do with anything. Each man’s desires seem justifiable to him, and it becomes difficult to point a finger at any of the players and say that what they did was wrong.
With such a convoluted plot, it takes a while to get into this book. The initial chapters introduce so many characters, and they seem to have little if anything to do with each other, that it is difficult to see where the book is going. Wolfe has a deft hand, however, and though the point may not be clear, it is hardly a chore to make it through the set-up. The characters are interesting in and of themselves, and by the time the various stories collide the pace is positively racing.
Beware, though. This book was initially released in serial form in 27 installments. Even though it suffered heavy editing before being published as a novel, it is still a hefty 650+ pages. Still, if courtroom dramas and Wall Street fiascos are your thing, it is well worth the work.