The Bonfire of the Vanities – Prophecy Not Satire

If you’ve never read Tom Wolfe, I envy you. Untapped treasures await. My first exposure was The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I recall struggling through the opening page:

“And then say what? Say, ‘Forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop -- Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem --’”

“No, I’ll tell you what --” ­­

“‘Chuck come up to Harlem and --’”

“I’ll tell you what --”

“Say, ‘Chuck come up to Harlem and gonna take care a business for the black community’?”

That does it.


What the -- ? Who were these people and what the hell were they talking about? Wolfe’s literary stylings take some getting used to. His prose is noisy and showy and gauche. He delighted in flouting convention and mocking critics. If called for, he mocked contemporaries, too. Ask Updike, Mailer, and Irving.

Thankfully, I persisted with TBOTV and a few pages in, something remarkable happened. I was struck by a realization: this guy was dishing out reality. Unvarnished and uncleansed. Actual reality. Take this gem:

“It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders!

Soon after:

“And you, you Wasp charity-bailers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable… do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World!”

Good God, what forbidden despatches was I reading? In two memorable paragraphs, Wolfe captured the unease of White America in 1987. He tweaked a deep-seated tribal instinct in my then 25-year-old brain -- a racial awareness no white person was permitted to acknowledge. It’s the Third World down there. I believed him. I knew in my heart we were moving toward uncharted, dangerous waters, and that it had everything to do with race.

I soon fell in love with Wolfe’s literary style. Like his tailored white suits, the ostentatious prose demanded attention. It was rambunctious and lively and vulgar. Full of metaphor and dialect. Laden with punctuation and italics. And oh my, the onomatopoeia -- thoomp, thok, ooooooaggggh, hack-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack. Wolfe was a madman.

But underneath the racket, Wolfe’s cutting commentary and prescient insight shine, though always with a knowing wink. Even amidst the darkest content, Wolfe's exuberance keeps the tone light. We’re just having fun here.

What’s TBOTV about you ask? Hmmm… politics, race, class, greed. Human frailty, human folly, social status. Did I mention race? The protagonist is 38-year-old Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader making a million a year. He drives a Mercedes and his Park Avenue apartment is featured in Architectural Digest. He’s got it all -- attractive wife, beautiful daughter, sultry Southern mistress. A self-described “Master of the Universe,” he’s miles above the rabble and a cut above the rest of the aristocracy. He lives by a greed-is-good ethos, and firmly believes he’s untouchable.

Sherman’s not especially likable as he seizes every opportunity to rendezvous with his side piece, Maria. Before long, we find Sherman picking her up at JFK, and that’s where things go awry. He takes a wrong turn and they end up in the deep dark Bronx. Signs of decay and danger abound. It’s a jungle of violent crime and, while Wolfe never says it, their whiteness makes it all the more treacherous.

Sherman becomes desperately lost -- no GPS in 1987 -- and finds himself on an expressway ramp. What’s this? Something blocking the narrow passage? When Sherman gets out to remove it, two young black men approach, as if they’d been lying in wait. “Yo, you need some help?”

The threat is implicit, and Sherman makes a panicked move to escape. In the ensuing chaos, the younger black man -- 18-year-old Henry Lamb -- is clipped by the Mercedes. How badly, Sherman and Maria aren’t sure. Sherman is besieged with guilt, but Maria -- based Southern girl -- is frank in her assessment:

“I’m from South Carolina and I’ll tell you in plain English. Two ni--ers tried to kill us, and we got away. Two ni--ers tried to kill us in the jungle, and we got outta the jungle, and we’re still breathing, and that’s that.”

And later:

“They’d love to get their hands on you and me.”

By they, she means the police, the justice system, the entire system. How right she was. The incident goes unreported as Sherman sweats out guilt (and fear) and slowly returns to his frenzied, hollow life. Meanwhile, Reverend Bacon (think Al Sharpton) is on the case of young Henry Lamb, and Reverend Bacon knows how to play liberals. Stirring up white guilt pays good money and he smells opportunity.

Peter Fallow (alcoholic British reporter) also smells opportunity. His stories start appearing: “Poor Black Kid Mowed Down by Rich White Guy.” The victim was a good boy. Grew up in the projects, never got in trouble. Honor student, ready for college. A saint. If this was embellishment, no biggie. By the standards of Henry Lamb’s ’hood, it was all true.

When Lamb descends into a coma, then dies, the community seethes. They want justice. They want vengeance. The thing takes on a life of its own. The ambitious DA is out for blood. Forget Accidental Vehicular Homicide, he wants Murder One. The police know it’s a Mercedes and have a partial plate. Sherman watches in horror as the noose tightens.

When detectives finally turn up -- a standard interview to mark him off their list -- Sherman folds like a cheap tent. It’s an awful thing to watch. Everyone, including the reader, knows Sherman’s life is over. It has ceased to exist.

The machinery aligns to knock Sherman from his pedestal and deposit him in hell. The lawyers, the judiciary, the cops, the press -- they all lust for his scalp. There is much joy in prosecuting a rich white defendant when the Justice System’s norm is to “pack blacks and Latins off to jail.”

Sherman is scapegoat for all society’s ills. He’s defenseless. He has no tribe. He goes from “Master of the Universe” to universal object of scorn and ridicule, hated by all. We see how vulnerable Sherman is, and in turn, how vulnerable we might be.

TBOTV shows how race corrupts and perverts jurisprudence. Reviewers call it satire, but it’s hardly that today. It’s more exposé of white vulnerability. A harbinger of the menacing antiwhite climate we presently live in.

In 2022, woe to the white motorist in a car accident in a black neighborhood. They’re guilty based on skin color, and they might receive frontier justice on the spot. Not only car accidents, any interaction will do. Nowadays, Sherman McCoys are everywhere -- look at the George Zimmerman, and yes, even Derek Chauvin. Life-destroying encounters exist even in simple interactions -- look at Amy Cooper.

The system gleefully tosses whites to the wolves. Selective prosecution, selective persecution, selective ridicule, selective trial by public opinion. How many cases do we not know about? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Today’s criminal justice system vigorously attacks whites that dare misbehave.

Wolfe warned us. His 1987 masterpiece not only holds up 35 years later, it’s more relevant. If it’s not the greatest American novel ever, it must be the most prophetic.

K.M. Breakey is the author of Shout the Battle Cry of Freedom, and six other novels. He can be reached at ‘km @’

Image: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

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