by Tom Wolfe. First published in 1990. New York: Picador, 2008. 552pp. Trade Paperback. $16.00. ISBN: 9780312427573.
Reviewed by David Schultz, Graduate School of Management, Hamline University. Email: Dschultz [at] hamline.edu.
A period novel from the headlines of the 1980s, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES overwhelms readers with all the drama, greed, ego, and excess of that decade with characters reminiscent of real life players in New York City. One finds in this Tom Wolfe novel Wall Street crooks, overzealous headline-grabbing prosecutors, ambitious muckraking reporters, and opportunistic preachers. Yet underlying this dramatic farce is a powerful story about race and class in the criminal justice system.
Originally published in 1987, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES tells the story of a hapless Sherman McCoy. A self-described “master of the universe” because of his ability to sell bonds and make millions of dollars, almost effortlessly, he gives a poster child face to the “Greed is good” mantra of the Gordon Gecko Wall Street of the 80s. Sherman has it all. He is a Wall Street bond financier at Pierce and Pierce who lived with his wife and daughter at 816 Park Ave in a 14-room co-op featured in Architectural Digest. He drives a sleek black Mercedes, and of course, he has a girl friend on the side. Her name? Maria Ruskin, a young blonde bombshell from the south, who is married to the elder and quite wealthy Arthur Ruskin. Yet as smart as McCoy affects, he is not sly enough to master the ability to hide his affair from his wife.
The heart of the story unfolds when Sherman picks Maria up from JFK airport, takes a wrong exit into “Fort Apache” Bronx instead of Manhattan, and ventures through the borough that proves to be his heart of darkness. When he confronts a ramp cluttered with debris, he exits the car to clear it, only to find two African-American youths approaching him. Assuming they have designs to rob him, he throws some of the junk at them. Maria, now in the driver seat, backs up, hits one of the youths, and flees with Sherman. As they race away, McCoy speculates on whether they really hit anyone and whether they should report the incident. Maria says no on both counts as they retreat back to the rent-controlled love nest she illegally rents.
McCoy then begins the nervous process of reading though the papers, specifically the fictitious NEW YORK CITY LIGHT, a paper that looks to be a cross of the NEWS and POST, for a report of a hit and run in the Bronx. Soon the paper delivers on his fears as a Jimmy Breslin-like reporter, Peter Fallow, accounts the story of how a Henry Lamb, a high school senior in the Bronx, was unconscious with a coma in a hospital. Henry Lamb’s fate becomes the cause celebre for the BONFIRES. Enter now Reverend Bacon and DA Weiss. [*374]
Reverend Bacon, an African-American preacher with Al Sharpton instincts, is initially investigated for scamming $350,000 destined as seed money for a day care. To take heat off the investigation, he calls on the Bronx DA Weiss, who is facing reelection, to investigate the Lamb incident, calling the foot dragging and initial investigations “Weiss Justice” because the incident involves a Black youth and a Mercedes. Peter Fallow serves up the interests of both Bacon and Weiss when his paper manufactures trumped-up stories about Lamb to sell papers. Lamb, an average student from a poor school in the Bronx, is turned into a martyred honor student destined for college and future greatness.
McCoy’s downfall begins when the police, upon running the partial plate numbers on his car, question him. Sherman’s nervousness and evasiveness clue the police into realizing that they have their man, and they eventually tie him back to Maria, whose accented shouting of his name “Shuhmun” at the accident is recounted by one of the witnesses. From here, McCoy is treated to Weiss wishing to make a spectacle of him, including threatening a Rudy Giuliani-like arresting of him at his workplace and escorting him out shackled in a “perp walk.” Instead, a deal is struck for a private arrest and arraignment, but all that goes afoul as the DA plays the race and class contrasts to the media.
The strength of THE BONFIRES for law classes is its powerful irony in tackling race, class, and privilege in the criminal justice system. McCoy did not hit Lamb, Maria did, but she refuses to cooperate and efforts to tape conversations and introduce them into court raise a host of evidentiary questions that may be of some interest to students. However McCoy’s racism, as manifested in his fear of Black youths in the Bronx, or in jail, is part of what does him in. But more powerfully, race and class play out in numerous ways. Unlike people of color who are falsely accused of crimes they never committed, McCoy’s biggest crime is arrogance, affluence, and stupidity. His wealth and white privilege are used against him. While his attorney originally strikes a deal to get his client through booking and arraignment quickly and quietly, the egos of the media, Weiss, and Bacon make it impossible, and poor Sherman is forced to endure a few hours in jail before – unlike many other defendants – he is able to get and make bail. The scenes where McCoy is arrested, booked, and arraigned thus would be the best reading for a class; not for their literal truth in how most affluent white defendants are treated, but to begin a conversation on how Sherman’s treatment contrasts with the more typical client ensnared in the criminal justice system.
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is first a great satire of the personalities of the 1980s. It explores themes of greed that, while never out of style, were particularly ripe for skewering in the later 1980s. But the book also offers critiques of criminal justice that raised themes of class and race well before there was an O.J. Simpson trial. While students will find parts of the book engaging, at 550+ pages it is a hefty read given the lessons to be learned. Watching the awful movie version of the book is no substitute since it failed to capture its subtlety. The [*375] recommendation instead is to have students read chapters four, and 22-26, as they best capture the themes most relevant to the study of the criminal justice system.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, David Schultz.