The Bonfire of the Vanities, set in New York City in the nineteen eighties, has as its protagonist Sherman McCoy, a self-dubbed "Master of the Universe." McCoy makes a million dollars per annum on Wall Street. He is married to Judy McCoy, and they live with their six-year-old daughter on Park Avenue while maintaining a weekend house in Southampton, Long Island. Much of the action of the story takes place in the extremely decadent world of Park Avenue in the 1980s. Sherman and Judy McCoy's life of elegant apartments, profligate spending, and shallow friendship plays out amid Sheraton furnishings, marble floors, and $2000 suits.
Behind his wife's back, McCoy is conducting an affair with a younger woman, Maria, the socialite wife of another Park Avenue millionaire. One night, after picking her up from the airport, they make a wrong turn into the Bronx. There they have an encounter with a pair of young African-American men; this encounter possibly results in an accident that leaves one of the African-American men dead. McCoy and his mistress flee the scene, resolved not to tell anyone, including the police. At the time of the "accident," Maria was driving Sherman's car.
An unscrupulous civil attorney, Albert Vogel, finds out about this incident, including the information that the driver of the car was probably white, and feeds this news to Peter Fallow, a tippling British reporter at the New York daily newspaper The City Light. Fallow distorts the facts of the story to such an extent that certain African-American groups, led by the extortionist Reverend Bacon, take the story up as a rallying point against racial injustice. The story becomes politically charged and Bacon leads an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Meanwhile, Abe Weiss, the District Attorney in the Bronx, is up for re-election. The same Reverend Bacon has been vocally opposed to his campaign, accusing him of favoring white interests. Desperate for African-American votes, the D.A. ruthlessly prosecutes Sherman McCoy. Meanwhile, his Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, Larry Kramer, wrestles with serious self-esteem issues. Kramer uses the high profile of the case to attempt to impress his would-be mistress, Shelly Thomas.
Sherman ends up indicted for the crime after his mistress Maria and the other witnesses lie to legal authorities. Sherman uses the services of a flamboyant and street-wise Irish-American lawyer, Tommy Killian, who knows the criminal justice system inside and out. Though Sherman gets off through a trick involving a fraudulent taped conversation, he is not free of legal woes. All his assets are appropriated or frozen, and his wife and child leave him. He fights against the legal and political system that ruined him, and grows into a vocal critic of society.
Throughout the novel, Wolfe writes in a bitingly satiric style, sparing no one from the top to the bottom of society. The Mayor of New York, the Reverend Bacon, the D.A., prosecutors, middle-class people, the police, and the poor minorities of Harlem and the Bronx are all shown to be selfish and morally flawed. The wealthy W.A.S.P. world of Sherman McCoy, however, with its Park Avenue shindigs and its pandering to artists-of-the-moment, is shown to be the worst bastion of elitism, prejudice, and self-delusion.