The best books capture a piece of the world while pickling and preserving it within the brine of the author’s experience. Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities works beautifully around this ad-hoc literary theory. It is a story of segregation and tiered justice, of reactionaries and bigots, financial charlatans and the poison that creeps among the affluent.
The book works because Wolfe is very much a product of the time. The plot is tight, well-crafted, and only occasionally frustrating as it chronicles a decade of male indulgence and Wall Street Exceptionalism. It is tale of nouveau affluentsia with a taste for appearing exceptional while tirelessly holding to the old generation’s bigotries. It examines the era of Bernie Goetz with a journalists eye and a writer’s flair, but there is this creeping sense that the book’s machismo façade is less façade and more genuine male gaze and indignantly alpha male. David Foster Wallace issued this indictment years ago so I won’t dwell on it, but relentlessness with which the female form is itemized, pursued, and conquered over 700 pages begins to chaff by the book’s halfway mark, each concurrent incident clinging to the text like aphids along the stalk of a rose.
“A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.” ― Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities