Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his spellbinding first novel, Wolfe proves that he has the right stuff to write propulsively engrossing fiction. Both his cynical irony and sense of the ridiculous are perfectly suited to his subject: the roiling, corrupt, savage, ethnic melting pot that is New York City. Ranging from the rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue to the dingy courtrooms of the Bronx, this is a totally credible tale of how the communities uneasily coexist and what happens when they collide.
On a clandestine date with his mistress one night, top Wall Street investment banker and snobbish WASP Sherman McCoy misses his turn on the thruway and gets lost in the South Bronx; his Mercedes hits and seriously injures a young black man. The incident is inflated by a manipulative black leader, a district attorney seeking reelection and a sleazy tabloid reporter into a full-blown scandal, a political football and a hokey morality play.
Wolfe adroitly swings his focus from one to another of the people involved: the protagonist McCoy; Kramer, the assistant D.A.; two detectives one Irish, the other Jewish; a slimy, alcoholic British journalist; an outraged judge, etc. He has an infallible, mocking ear for New York voices, rendering with equal precision the defense lawyer's "gedoutdahere,'' the deliberate bad grammar ("that don't help matters'') of the wily "reverend'' and the clenched-teeth WASP locution ("howjado''). His reporter's eye has seized every gritty detail of the criminal justice system, and he is also acute in rendering the hierarchy at a society party. He convincingly equates the jungles of Wall Street and the Bronx: in both places men casually use the same four-letter expletives and, no matter what their standing on the social ladder, find that power kindles their lust for nubile young women.
Erupting from the first line with noise, color, tension and immediacy, this immensely entertaining novel accurately mirrors a system that has broken down: from the social code of basic good manners to the fair practices of the law. It is safe to predict that the book will stand as a brilliant evocation of New York's class, racial and political structure in the 1980s.
Insulation is the key to living in New York, according to millionaire bond salesman Sherman McCoy, insulation from "them.'' So when he makes a wrong turn one night and finds himself driving through the South Bronx in his Mercedes, he panics. In his haste to get back to Manhattan he sideswipes a pedestrian; made tabloid news by a sleazy reporter, the incident has every politician in town crying for McCoy's blood. As some critics have long maintained, Wolfe's genius may be better suited to fiction than to journalism; his novel has all the knowledge, insight, and wit of earlier works but tones down the notorious stylistic excesses. The result is not just Wolfe's most successful book to date but one of the most impressive novels of the decade. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School Library, Los Angeles
From the Publisher
“A big, bitter, funny, craftily plotted book that grabs you by the lapels and won't let you go.” The New York Times Book Review
“The Bonfire of the Vanities chronicles the collapse of a Wall Street bond trader, and examines a world in which fortunes are made and lost at the blink of a computer screen. . . . Wolfe's subject couldn't be more topical: New Yorkers' relentless pursuit and flaunting of wealth, and the fury it evokes in the have-nots.” USA Today
“A superb human comedy and the first novel ever to get contemporary New York, in all its arrogance and shame and heterogeneity and insularity, exactly right.” The Washington Post Book World
“A page-turner . . . Brilliant high comedy.” The New Republic
“More than a tour de force.” Time
Read an Excerpt
The Master of the UniverseCopyright 1987 by Tom Wolfe
At that very moment, in the very sort of Park Avenue co-op apartment that so obsessed the Mayor ... twelve-foot ceilings ... two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who own the place and one for the help ... Sherman McCoy was kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund. The floor was a deep green marble, and it went on and on. It led to a five-foot-wide walnut staircase that swept up in a sumptuous curve to the floor above. It was the sort of apartment the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York and, for that matter, all over the world. But Sherman burned only with the urge to get out of this fabulous spread of his for thirty minutes.
So here he was, down on both knees, struggling with a dog. The dachshund, he figured, was his exit visa.
Looking at Sherman McCoy, hunched over like that and dressed the way he was, in his checked shirt, khaki pants, and leather boating moccasins, you would have never guessed what an imposing figure he usually cut. Still young ... thirty-eight years old ... tall ... almost six-one ... terrific posture ... terrific to the point of imperious ... as imperious as his daddy, the Lion of Dunning Sponget ... a full head of sandy-brown hair ... a long nose ... a prominent chin ... He was proud of his chin. The McCoy chin; the Lion had it, too. It was a manly chin, a big round chin such as Yale men used to have in those drawings by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin, if you want to know what Sherman thought. He was a Yale man himself.
But at this moment his entire appearance was supposed to say:“I’m only going out to walk the dog.”
The dachshund seemed to know what was ahead. He kept ducking away from the leash. The beast’s stunted legs were deceiving. If you tried to lay hands on him, he turned into a two-foot tube packed with muscle. In grappling with him, Sherman had to lunge. And when he lunged, his kneecap hit the marble floor, and the pain made him angry.
“C’mon, Marshall,” he kept muttering. “Hold still, damn it.”
The beast ducked again, and he hurt his knee again, and now he resented not only the beast but his wife, too. It was his wife’s delusions of a career as an interior decorator that had led to this ostentatious spread of marble in the first place. The tiny black grosgrain cap on the toe of a woman’s shoe —
— she was standing there.
“You’re having a time, Sherman. What on earth are you doing?”
Without looking up: “I’m taking Marshall for a wa-a-a-a-a-alk.”
Walk came out as a groan, because the dachshund attempted a fishtail maneuver and Sherman had to wrap his arm around the dog’s midsection.
“Did you know it was raining?”
Still not looking up: “Yes, I know.” Finally he managed to snap the leash on the animal’s collar.
“You’re certainly being nice to Marshall all of a sudden.”
Wait a minute. Was this irony? Did she suspect something? He looked up.
But the smile on her face was obviously genuine, altogether pleasant ... a lovely smile, in fact ... Still a very good-looking woman, my wife ... with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair ... But she’s forty years old! ... No getting around it ... Today good-looking ... Tomorrow they’ll be talking about what a handsome woman she is ... Not her fault ... But not mine, either!
“I have an idea,” she said. “Why don’t you let me walk Marshall? Or I’ll get Eddie to do it. You go upstairs and read Campbell a story before she goes to sleep. She’d love it. You’re not home this early very often. Why don’t you do that?”
He stared at her. It wasn’t a trick! She was sincere! And yet zip zip zip zip zip zip zip with a few swift strokes, a few little sentences, she had ... tied him in knots! — thongs of guilt and logic! Without even trying!
The fact that Campbell might be lying in her little bed — my only child! — the utter innocence of a six-year-old! — wishing that he would read her a bedtime story ... while he was ... doing whatever it was he was now doing ... Guilt! ... The fact that he usually got home too late to see her at all ... Guilt on top of guilt! ... He doted on Campbell! — loved her more than anything in the world! ... To make matters worse — the logic of it! The sweet wifely face he was now staring at had just made a considerate and thoughtful suggestion, a logical suggestion ... so logical he was speechless! There weren’t enough white lies in the world to get around such logic! And she was only trying to be nice!
“Go ahead,” she said. “Campbell will be so pleased. I’ll tend to Marshall.”
The world was upside down. What was he, a Master of the Universe, doing down here on the floor, reduced to ransacking his brain for white lies to circumvent the sweet logic of his wife? The Masters of the Universe were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with. They looked like Norse gods who lifted weights, and they had names such as Dracon, Ahor, Mangelred, and Blutong. They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys. Yet one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that ... Masters of the Universe. There was ... no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul. He was no fool. Yet he couldn’t get it out of his head. And here was the Master of the Universe, on the floor with a dog, hog-tied by sweetness, guilt, and logic ... Why couldn’t he (being a Master of the Universe) simply explain it to her? Look, Judy, I still love you and I love our daughter and I love our home and I love our life, and I don’t want to change any of it — it’s just that I, a Master of the Universe, a young man still in the season of the rising sap, deserve more from time to time, when the spirit moves me —
— but he knew he could never put any such thought into words. So resentment began to bubble up into his brain ... In a way she brought it on herself, didn’t she ... Those women whose company she now seems to prize ... those ... those ... The phrase pops into his head at that very instant: social X rays ... They keep themselves so thin, they look like X-ray pictures ... You can see lamplight through their bones ... while they’re chattering about interiors and landscape gardening ... and encasing their scrawny shanks in metallic Lycra tubular tights for their Sports Training classes ... And it hasn’t helped any, has it! ... See how drawn her face and neck look ... He concentrated on her face and neck ... drawn ... No doubt about it ... Sports Training ... turning into one of them —
He managed to manufacture just enough resentment to ignite the famous McCoy temper.
He could feel his face grow hot. He put his head down and said, “Juuuuuudy ...” It was a shout stifled by teeth. He pressed the thumb and the first two fingers of his left hand together and held them in front of his clamped jaws and blazing eyes, and he said:
“Look ... I’m all — set — to — walk — the — dog ... So I’m — going — out — to — walk — the — dog ... Okay?”
Halfway through it, he knew it was totally out of proportion to ... to ... but he couldn’t hold back. That, after all, was the secret of the McCoy temper ... on Wall Street ... wherever ... the imperious excess.
Judy’s lips tightened. She shook her head.
“Please do what you want,” she said tonelessly. Then she turned away and walked across the marble hall and ascended the sumptuous stairs.
Still on his knees, he looked at her, but she didn’t look back. Please do what you want. He had run right over her. Nothing to it. But it was a hollow victory.
Another spasm of guilt —
The Master of the Universe stood up and managed to hold on to the leash and struggle into his raincoat. It was a worn but formidable rubberized British riding mac, full of flaps, straps, and buckles. He had bought it at Knoud on Madison Avenue. Once, he had considered its aged look as just the thing, after the fashion of the Boston Cracked Shoe look. Now he wondered. He yanked the dachshund along on the leash and went from the entry gallery out into the elevator vestibule and pushed the button.
Rather than continue to pay around-the-clock shifts of Irishmen from Queens and Puerto Ricans from the Bronx $200,000 a year to run the elevators, the apartment owners had decided two years ago to convert the elevators to automatic. Tonight that suited Sherman fine. In this outfit, with this squirming dog in tow, he didn’t feel like standing in an elevator with an elevator man dressed up like an 1870 Austrian army colonel. The elevator descended — and came to a stop two floors below. Browning. The door opened, and the smooth-jowled bulk of Pollard Browning stepped on. Browning looked Sherman and his country outfit and the dog up and down and said, without a trace of a smile, “Hello, Sherman.”
“Hello, Sherman” was on the end of a ten-foot pole and in a mere four syllables conveyed the message: “You and your clothes and your animal are letting down our new mahogany-paneled elevator.”
Sherman was furious but nevertheless found himself leaning over and picking the dog up off the floor. Browning was the president of the building’s co-op board. He was a New York boy who had emerged from his mother’s loins as a fifty-year-old partner in Davis Polk and president of the Downtown Association. He was only forty but had looked fifty for the past twenty years. His hair was combed back smoothly over his round skull. He wore an immaculate navy suit, a white shirt, a shepherd’s check necktie, and no raincoat. He faced the elevator door, then turned his head, took another look at Sherman, said nothing, and turned back.
Sherman had known him ever since they were boys at the Buckley School. Browning had been a fat, hearty, overbearing junior snob who at the age of nine knew how to get across the astonishing news that McCoy was a hick name (and a hick family), as in Hatfields and McCoys, whereas he, Browning, was a true Knickerbocker. He used to call Sherman “Sherman McCoy the Mountain Boy.”
When they reached the ground floor, Browning said, “You know it’s raining, don’t you?”
Browning looked at the dachshund and shook his head. “Sherman McCoy. Friend to man’s best friend.”
Sherman felt his face getting hot again. He said, “That’s it?”
“You had from the eighth floor to here to think up something bright, and that’s it?” It was supposed to sound like amiable sarcasm, but he knew his anger had slipped out around the edges.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Browning, and he walked on ahead. The doorman smiled and nodded and held the door open for him. Browning walked out under the awning to his car. His chauffeur held the car door open for him. Not a drop of rain touched his glossy form, and he was off, smoothly, immaculately, into the swarm of red taillights heading down Park Avenue. No ratty riding mac encumbered the sleek fat back of Pollard Browning.
In fact, it was raining only lightly, and there was no wind, but the dachshund was having none of it. He was beginning to struggle in Sherman’s arms. The power of the little bastard! He put the dog down on the runner under the awning and then stepped out into the rain with the leash. In the darkness the apartment buildings on the other side of the avenue were a serene black wall holding back the city’s sky, which was a steaming purple. It glowed, as if inflamed by a fever.
Hell, it wasn’t so bad out here. Sherman pulled, but the dog dug into the runner with his toenails.
“Come on, Marshall.”
The doorman was standing outside the door, watching him.
“I don’t think he’s too happy about it, Mr. McCoy.”
“I’m not, either, Eddie.” And never mind the commentary, thought Sherman. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, Marshall.”
By now Sherman was out in the rain giving the leash a pretty good pull, but the dachshund wasn’t budging. So he picked him up and took him off the rubber runner and set him down on the sidewalk. The dog tried to bolt for the door. Sherman couldn’t give him any more slack on the leash or else he was going to be right back where he started. So now he was leaning one way and the dog was leaning the other, with the leash taut between them. It was a tug-of-war between a man and a dog ... on Park Avenue. Why the hell didn’t the doorman get back in the building where he belonged?
Sherman gave the leash a real jerk. The dachshund skidded forward a few inches on the sidewalk. You could hear his toenails scraping. Well, maybe if he dragged him hard enough, he would give up and start walking just to keep from being dragged.
“C’mon, Marshall! We’re only going around the corner!”
From the Paperback edition.