Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bonefire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe

'Bonefire of the Vanities', published in 1987, a biting portrayal of the New York of the 1980's was a major commercial success. It was not author Tom Wolfe's first work (he had written journalistic articles and non-fiction books before this work), but the success of this book must have left him spell-bound. The book was eventually made into a motion picture of the same name, with some great credentials (movie 'Bonefire of the Vanities', released in 1990, was directed by Brian DePalma, and starred such name as Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Melanie Griffith). Part of the reason why the novel struck such a resounding chord could because the characters could be been as representing many of the character flaws of important public figures.

The Bonefire of the Vanities (1987)

The characters themselves represent the worst of the sins of greed, adultery, ambition, the preoccupation with status and wealth, the arrogance of the wealthy and the insurrection type violence of the deprived, the way in which you can actually depend on no one, and the special talents of wannabe and existing politicians. Imagine what happens when a highly arrogant and wealthy banker gets hit by about everything that he can be hit with and becomes the target for people wanting to use him to advance their own career. In addition, New York city seems like a perfect spot for such a novel to be set - it is probably the most melting point type of city in the world (with unprecedented riches and the most poor and deprived).
The book is about the powerful and WASP banker Sherman McCoy, arrogant in his status and wealth (he is atop the banking circles of New York). He is already distant from his wife, and is in the car with his mistress, Maria Ruskin - this is when his troubles start. He accidentally enters the Bronx, and in a confrontation with some muggers, his mistress takes over the wheel and hits one of them, young Henry Lamb.
This accident becomes the Saviour for a number of people, all of whom will use this incident and the powerful symbol of a white powerful man hitting a poor and powerless young black man. So, Peter Fallow, a drunk washed out reporter, gets a chance to take on this assignment, and uses this to powerful advantage, writing a series of articles based on this incident, and against McCoy when it becomes clear that it was his car that was involved. McCoy is also ditched by his mistress who soon makes it clear that she was not involved in the accident.
What makes matter worse is the involvement of a local religious leader with political aspirations, Reverend Bacon (seemingly styled on the real life Rev Al Sharpton), who wants to utilize this accident to further his career as the one who really cares for the African-American community. And to increase the forces against McCoy, he is also targeted by the district attorney, Abe Weiss, who is up for re-election and sees this trial as a way to consolidate votes behind him (and will do anything to get a conviction). With all these factors against him, McCoy is in for it, and is soon up for trial. What happens next ?

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