Tom Wolfe's version of New York in Bonfire of the Vanities displays the worst of human nature, and very little of the good. In Wolfe's New York, venal self-interest motivates everyone but the suckers, ethnic and racial bigotry is extreme (and often justified), and the only character who is presented entirely without flaws is the six-year-old Campbell McCoy. Men use women for little other than sexual gratification, and women use men almost entirely for monetary or social gain.
Not unlike Dickens, Wolfe directs much of his cynicism at institutions -- particularly the criminal justice system. The prosecution of "The Great White Defendant" by the politically-motivated District Attorney Weiss, out of all proportion to the severity of the crime, and particularly the manipulation of truth and justice by the news media, show Wolfe's cynical view of these flawed apparatuses of human society. The skewering of the McCoy's gilded Park Avenue world is particularly severe. Those in power fail to represent the disinterested abstractions (justice, civil rights, etc.) that they ostensibly represent, and that's the understatement of the decade.
Childishness in the Adult Male
Wolfe has two of his main characters -- Sherman McCoy and Lawrence Kramer -- repeatedly questioning the entire world they have built for themselves. When Sherman's world is shaken by the threat of his arrest he vacillates between wishing he had given up his materialist high-society rat race life in New York and moved to Tennessee, and trying to salvage that same New York life. Lawrence Kramer, through his fantasies and pursuit of Shelly Thomas, seeks to escape his life of prosecuting and feeding "the chow" (black and Latino defendants) into the criminal justice system in the Bronx.
Each of these men have chosen and pursued their professions, and have likewise married and had a child, but they each fight against the families and lives they have created. Each of them lack the maturity to accept the responsibilities of husband and father, and seek to "cheat" on that life through fantasy and infidelity. Each of them is intelligent enough to know the imperfection of their lives -- Sherman knows that the Park Avenue obsession with wealth and its trappings masks a soulless existence, and Lawrence understands that the criminal justice system he serves is often very unfair, and he is doomed to a life of middle-class struggling in Manhattan, but neither of them have the maturity or courage to break out of their lives to make something different for themselves.
And through this lack of moral strength they betray their wives, and vacillate between trying to justify their existence within their flawed worlds, and fantasizing their way out of them. This kind of behavior is paralleled almost directly between the two men, albeit on different social levels. Each of them lives beyond their means, and balms his ego with an affair. Their moral failures are merely symptoms of their shared diseases -- cowardice and apathy, coupled with ambition, avarice, selfishness and childishness.
In almost every reference to sex or sexually attractive people, Wolfe uses the term "animal." When Sherman sees an attractive young woman on the street he composes a mental text for the two of them in which they each describe themselves as "frisky young animals." For Wolfe, the idea of sex is so bound up with the idea of physicality that it reduces human beings to animals.
The animal metaphor continues in the "jungle" description of the Bronx. The criminals and residents of the Bronx are frightening and foreign creatures to the Manhattanites Sherman and Maria, and they react towards the two young men, Roland and Henry, in a wholly defensive way, as one would react to an approaching predatory animal. When Sherman is "victorious" in this confrontation he is "King of the Jungle" -- a metaphor which conjures up the idea of a lion.
Indeed, animal imagery abound in the novel. The lion metaphor is repeated in reference to Sherman's father, John McCoy, the "lion" -- a great and powerful lawyer -- of his firm Dunning, Sponget, and Leach. Fallow and his cronies at Leicester's call the Americans they dupe into buying their drinks "fish." Most tellingly, Sherman refers to his "animal self" when he tells the lie to Judge Kovitzky about the origin of the tape of he and Maria talking about the accident. Wolfe makes it clear that the animal self is underneath all the vanity and superficial glamor of the Park Avenue life Sherman McCoy leads.
The McCoy case as a morality play
The Sherman McCoy case, though a simple hit-and-run in court, grows into a flash point for the culture war of the eighties. The press and even the district attorney's office take prosecution McCoy to be a way to symbolically right the racial wrongs of the entire city of New York. Even Peter Fallow and Gerald Steiner discuss it as a morality play for the sensationalist press. The people involved in it -- Sherman McCoy, Henry Lamb, Mrs. Lamb, Reverend Bacon -- become symbols rather than human beings.
Though DA Abe Weiss says that he would like to treat every case individually, he admits that the case load in the Bronx makes that impossible. And when the Great White Defendant (Sherman McCoy) becomes available, Weiss, ADA Kramer, Reverend Bacon, and the press cannot resist treating the case as a means to tear at the white W.A.S.P. power structure that controls Manhattan. It becomes irrelevant whether Sherman is innocent or not -- he is a white defendant in a case of a black victim in the Bronx. The press and criminal justice system seem to find this inversion of power to be a juicy opportunity to avenge the social injustice in New York. The whole affair ultimately is not about Sherman McCoy versus the system, or even Sherman McCoy against Henry Lamb, Mrs. Lamb, and Reverend Bacon. It becomes Park Avenue versus the Bronx.
There are several interesting and entertaining subplots aside from the main plot of Bonfire of the Vanities which serve little perceivable purpose to the main action of the story. The reason they are used are merely to add atmosphere, explicate characters, relieve the tension of the racially-charged main plot line, and allow for satire.
An example is the subplot of Lawrence Kramer's attempted affair with Shelly Thomas. His infidelity adds or detracts nothing from the plot, but simply shows what kind of a man Lawrence Kramer is. He's much like Sherman, egotistical and self-delusional, and able to justify his own immoral actions by his childish arrogance. The final entry into this subplot, in which Larry attempts to use Maria Ruskin's illegal sublet as a trysting place for Shelly Thomas and himself, is a wry comic comment on the flawed nature of the criminal justice system in New York.
Similarly, the subplot of Reverend Bacon's appropriation of the Episcopal Diocese of New York's $350,000 for himself rather than the construction of a day care center only illustrates the Reverend Mr. Bacon's moral turpitude and his method of exploiting the racial inequalities in New York.
Tom Wolfe ruthlessly exposes the superficiality of 1980s culture. His criticism is not only confined to the very rich, the materialism of middle-class people is derided, too. Larry Kramer and his wife, for example, attempt to maintain an expensive Manhattan apartment for the sake of status. Kramer also lives beyond his means as he pursues his affair with Shelly, taking her to absurdly expensive restaurants just to seem as though he belongs.
Wolfe directs his most serious criticism, however, to the very rich, with their extravagant dinner parties, 6-block hired-car rides which cost $250, and thousand-dollar flower arrangements. The restaurant industry in particular gets sharp criticism. La Boue D'Argent, one of the fanciest restaurants in town, translated means either "The Silver Mud" or "Mud Money." It doesn't mean "the silver boar" as the large statue in the entrance implies. When Arthur Ruskin collapses dead in their restaurant, they show absolutely no concern. With Ruskin dead, he can no longer pay for their services; thus, why should they care about him?
Reverend Bacon, though ostensibly concerned with the construction of the Little Shepherd Day Care Center and other much-needed social programs in Harlem, is shown in clothing almost as expensive as Sherman McCoy's and living in a mansion. He is, perhaps, the worst example of "vanity," for his mission is purported to be charitable rather than selfish.
Hypocrisy is rife in this novel, and most evident in the two leaders depicted on opposing sides, Reverend Bacon and the Mayor of New York. Neither of these men are truly concerned with the people of New York, but rather with their own advancement and profit. Each, in his way, is racist, but decries racism at every turn. Each purports to be "of the people" but uses his position of power for monetary gain.
The hypocrisy and pretension of American life is everywhere in Bonfire of the Vanities. Peter Fallow, especially, practices such deception that his journalism can hardly be called non-fiction. Larry Kramer is so concerned with his masculinity that he exhibits bravado in court to impress a pretty juror, and has such a self-hatred of his own Jewishness that he affects the toughness of an Irish cop.
The rich, especially the McCoys, the Bavardages, and the Ruskins, are rapacious and superficial in the extreme, and try to insulate themselves from the social injustice and race strife in their city as much as possible. Very few characters, even the innocents like Edward Fiske, are without the stain of pretension and ego. This focus on hypocrisy sharpens the satire of the novel.
Class and language
In the novel, Tom Wolfe carefully tailors his dialog to mimic real speech among New Yorkers of every class. He painstakingly records accents in words, such as Maria's "Shuhmun" and the affected bad grammar, such as "They ain't," of Larry Kramer and the detectives. The African-American and Jewish New York patterns of speech are reproduced, including vocabulary, syntax, and accents. With the high-society crowd, Wolfe peppers his prose with fashionable phrases, especially in French and German, and Briticisms. He realistically recreates the varied forms of English spoken in New York in the 1980s.
The Bonfire of the Vanities Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Bonfire of the Vanities is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.