Synopsis: The Bonfire of the Vanities is set in New York during the 1980s. When a black student is the victim of a hit-and-run by a white Wall Street stockbroker, the prejudices that lie beneath life in the city are exposed at the quick.
The first thing that struck me about this novel was its depiction of cringing racism and sexism. Race and nationality are used to narrowly define people’s identity, while women lack portrayals as anything other than objects of sexual desire. Although this can make for uncomfortable reading, I came to understand it as a realistic representation of the period. Not to present these prejudices is surely to deny that they ever existed – and, indeed, still do today.
There were few if any characters that I could sympathise with in The Bonfire of the Vanities. To be frank, most of them are nasty pieces of work! However, Wolfe prevents readers from feeling distanced from the novel as a result of this by dealing with universal emotions. Guilt, jealousy, disappointment, fear – all are portrayed with visceral power.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of those novels that requires a little work to get into but this effort is well repaid once you become absorbed in the story! At first, it took a while to introduce the characters and at times I became a bit confused as to who was who. The character list that I made as I went along came in handy in these moments – particularly when the same person is referred to randomly by either their first name or surname! Having said that, I found myself referring to it less and less as I became intimate with all of the different perspectives in the novel.
After these introductory chapters, the novel becomes easy reading, especially for a relatively long book (about 700 pages). The narrative is almost stream-of-consciousness at times, following thoughts as well as events, which considerably quickened the pace.
The writing style in The Bonfire of the Vanities can sometimes feel aggressive, heady and pumped full of adrenaline (much like its posturing characters). However, it is also a subtle and chilling portrayal of the consequences when personal and political agenda are placed before human decency.
“And Sherman McCoy, who had now vowed to be his animal self, discovered what many had discovered before him. In well-reared girls and boys, guilt and the instinct to obey the rules are reflexes, ineradicable ghosts in the machine.”
Read if: you want to experience a no-nonsense, straight-talking dive into the unsettling culture of 80s New York.
Cover image courtesy of Goodreads.
Have you read The Bonfire of the Vanities? What did you think? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!