The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novelby Tom Wolfe
Vintage Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the #1 bestseller that will forever define late-twentieth-century New York style. "No one has portrayed New York Society this accurately and devastatingly since Edith Wharton" (The National Review) “A page-turner . . . Brilliant high comedy.” (The New Republic)
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The Bonfire of the Vanities
By Tom Wolfe
PicadorCopyright © 1987 Tom Wolfe
All rights reserved.
The Master of the Universe
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 ...]IT Land 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!"
He gave the leash another jerk and then kept pulling for all he was worth. The dog slid forward a couple of feet. He slid! He wouldn't walk. He wouldn't give up. The beast's center of gravity seemed to be at the middle of the earth. It was like trying to drag a sled with a pile of bricks on it. Christ, if he could only get around the corner. That was all he wanted. Why was it that the simplest things — he gave the leash another jerk and then he kept the pressure on. He was leaning like a sailor into the wind. He was getting hot inside his rubberized riding mac. The rain was running down his face. The dachshund had his feet splayed out on the sidewalk. His shoulder muscles were bulging. He was thrashing from side to side. His neck was stretched out. Thank God, he wasn't barking, at least! He slid. Christ, you could hear it! You could hear his toenails scraping along the sidewalk. He wouldn't give an inch. Sherman had his head down, his shoulders hunched over, dragging this animal through the darkness and the rain on Park Avenue. He could feel the rain on the back of his neck.
He squatted down and picked up the dachshund, catching a glimpse of Eddie, the doorman, as he did. Still watching! The dog began bucking and thrashing. Sherman stumbled. He looked down. The leash had gotten wrapped around his legs. He began gimping along the sidewalk. Finally he made it around the corner to the pay telephone. He put the dog down on the sidewalk.
Christ! Almost got away! He grabs the leash just in time. He's sweating. His head is soaked with rain. His heart is pounding. He sticks one arm through the loop in the leash. The dog keeps struggling. The leash is wrapped around Sherman's legs again. He picks up the telephone and cradles it between his shoulder and his ear and fishes around in his pocket for a quarter and drops it in the slot and dials.
Three rings, and a woman's voice: "Hello?"
But it was not Maria's voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: "May I speak to Maria, please?"
The woman said: "Sherman? Is that you?"
Christ! It's Judy! He's dialed his own apartment! He's aghast — paralyzed!
He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He'll bluff it out. When she asks him, he'll say he doesn't know what she's talking about. After all, he said only five or six words. How can she be sure?
But it was no use. She'd be sure, all right. Besides, he was no good at bluffing. She'd see right through him. Still, what else could he do?
He stood there in the rain, in the dark, by the telephone. The water had worked its way down inside his shirt collar. He was breathing heavily. He was trying to figure out how bad it was going to be. What would she do? What would she say? How angry would she be? This time she'd have something she could really work on. She deserved her scene if she wanted it. He had been truly stupid. How could he have done such a thing? He berated himself. He was no longer angry at Judy at all. Could he bluff it out, or had he really done it now? Had he really hurt her?
All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the town houses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street — a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five. Sherman stared at him. Well, let him come! I'm not budging! It's my territory! I'm not giving way for any street punks!
The black youth suddenly made a ninety-degree turn and cut straight across the street to the sidewalk on the other side. The feeble yellow of a sodium-vapor streetlight reflected for an instant on his face as he checked Sherman out.
He had crossed over! What a stroke of luck!
Excerpted from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1987 Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Tom Wolfe is the author of a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. He lives in New York City.
Tom Wolfe is one of the founders of the new journalism movement and author of such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- March 2, 1931
- Place of Birth:
- Richmond, Virginia
- B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957
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Almost two decades after this New York Times bestseller hit the shelves, and only after witnessing author Tom Wolfe on a recent 'Book Talk' interview on CSPAN, did I decide to read 'The Bonfire of the Vanities'. I have not seen the movie of the same name, however, I understand from the interview, that it was 'poorly done.' My 637 paged copy of this trade paperback began with a confusing confrontation between the mayor of New York and a Jesse Jackson-type Black spokesman. But I didn't let that stop me. Prior to its reading, I imagined the book to be about the high life of the rich, and it certainly is, however it is actually more of a richly fleshed-out 'Law and Order' type episode spread over the thirty days during which I consumed it. Ignoring the New York and Southern America dialects spelled out by author Wolfe: 'That's nuthun Shuhmun' (and I'm not certain how necessary those were for a book created to be read silently to one's self) I soon found myself, heart throbbing, in the supple leather seats of a black, two-door Mercedes 'roadster', rocketing up a highway ramp somewhere in the Bronx, and hooked on this finely written piece. Talented authors, whether by design or not, force their readers to forever carry pieces of their story. From Hemmingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' I will always remember the long walk of the captured with villagers on either side, ending with a forced leap to death from the cliff at the end of the path. From 'Bonfire' I will always see in my mind the extravagant parties with the overly gracious hostess meeting incoming guests and guiding them to clusters of 'conversational bouquets', like a gardener planting bulbs next to one another in the freshly turned warm earth of her garden. The author calls the wives of these millionaires, who have starved themselves in the late 1980s fashion of Karen Carpenter, 'X Rays.' If you are searching for a book with a clear cut, warm and fuzzy happy ending, this work, ending with a five-page epilogue isn't it. However, if you are interested a reading that has plenty of twists and turns in the burroughs of New York and visits courtrooms, lawyers, cops, thugs, luxuriant Fifth Avenue Townhomes, bond market trading floors, eleven-dollar-a-drink restaurants, the alcohol-soaked psyche of a tabloid journalist, and the tortured egos of married men who can't keep their pants zipped, all the while painting word pictures that will remain in the frame of your mind for years, read 'The Bonfire of the Vanities.'
Simply stated, the best book I have read. Mr. Wolfe has the ability to put the reader inside the character's head. The initial police questioning of Sherman McCoy had me edgy and feeling the anxiety of the character as if I were the one being investigated. A great read.
Bonfire is an amazing epic novel of the failure of the human spirit. It is truthful,synical,hilarious and brilliant. There are not many characters in this book who are worthy of our sympathy. But perhaps the anti-hero Sherman Mccoy comes closest. For as his world and illusions become shattered; we realize that we are all victims to the sin of vanity. This is one of the greatest novels ever written.
I have read this book three times over the last 11 years, and I find something new everytime. Being in the securities industry, I enjoy the description of the trading floor of Pierce and Pierce. Also, I liked the scene where Sherman stumbles in trying to explain to his daughter what he does for a living, but his wife describes his job as a bond salesman as one who collects 'golden crumbs'. I hope someday to describe better to my child what I do for a living better than Sherman did! Another memorable scene is the party one with the Golden Hillbilly opera singer. Along with Wolfe's latest, A Man in Full, a modern American classic.
Starts at 9:00 pm eastern
Broke down and dove straight in to tangle a bit more with me nemesis . . . fiction. :/
You will not look at the news media the same after reading this book. Because of the recent racial uproar I am reading the book again.
This book is an acurate view of American society. It turns the lense on us, and no one is spared. A true masterpiece of American liturature. I have read it multiple times over the years, it not only holds up every time, it gets better with each reading.
The audiobook for this novel is terrific. Despite the obvious expletives inherent in the novel, Joe Barrett does an excellent job of taking Wolfe's dialogue to the next level. The book is, by itself, an excellent satire of 1980's wall street and Barrett only helps to give additional voice to this destruction of a wall street Oedipus.