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The Bonfire of Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014

Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 01/12/2012

Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1987; Pages – 690

The bonfire of vanities is a tradition of burning any object deemed to be sinful. The most infamous occasion of such an event happened in the Italian city of Florence, when the ruler of the city purged from the city many pieces of art, literature and wigs. But Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of Vanities” is a depiction of the 1980’s New York City. Torn by racism and income imbalance, crime rate was at its highest, but so was its economic growth. The financial industry was booming and investment bankers were buying up million dollar homes for themselves.

Wolfe’s story is about Sherman McCoy, one such investment banker, whose life reaches an unfortunate stop after an intersection with the lower strata of the Big Apple. While travelling with his mistress in the city, they go into the shadier parts of the city and accidentally run over a black youngster. The accident soon becomes a media darling after black rights groups put their weight behind it, and when the accused turns out to be a rich investment banker, the story gets more eyeballs.

What follows is a high octane court room battle that can rival even the best of John Grisham, interspersed with a political drama highlighted by the racial atmosphere of the city. There is a certain sense of facade left over the real story as the black youngster fights for his life in a hospital while rights groups, politicians and the media fight for fortune over his impending grave.

The book gives an excellent review of the 1980s New York society; the good parts and the bad. Wolfe had done excellent research for the preparation of the book, including interviewing many of the richer investment bankers of the time. The author is able to retain suspense till the end, since it was not McCoy who had actually run the black youngster fatally injuring him. But with the general public coming down on him for his avarice, it is his life that goes up in the bonfire of vanities. Or not.

The movie was released in 1990, starring Tom Hanks as a very likeable Sherman McCoy, co-starring Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman. Curiously, the story has a marked resemblance to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida early this year, which created a huge uproar about the laws of the state. While the trial is still ongoing, it received wide-scale international attention after the involvement of publicists and rights groups.


One Response to “The Bonfire of Vanities by Tom Wolfe”

  1. […] Danger in Darjeeling by Subhadra Sen Gupta & Tapas Guha – Published on 23/11/2012 37)  The Bonfire of Vanities by Tom Wolfe – Published on 01/12/2012 38)  The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman – Published […]

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