Throughout his early career, Wolfe had planned to write a novel that would capture the wide spectrum of American society. Among his models was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which described the society of 19th century England. Wolfe remained occupied writing nonfiction books on his own and contributing to Harper's until 1981, when he ceased his other projects to work on the novel.
Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. To overcome a case of writer's block, Wolfe wrote to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to propose an idea drawn from Charles Dickens and Thackeray. The Victorian writers whom Wolfe viewed as his models had often written their novels in serial installments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work. The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he had hoped for, and from July 1984 to August 1985 each biweekly issue of Rolling Stone contained a new installment. Wolfe was not happy with his "very public first draft", and thoroughly revised his work. Even Sherman McCoy, the central character of the novel, changed—originally a writer, in the book version he is cast as a bond salesman. (Wolfe came up with the revised occupation after spending a day on the government-bond desk of Salomon Brothers, with many of the traders who later founded the notorious hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management) Wolfe researched and revised for two years. The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn.