Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Rahman Johnson

Rahman is a TV News Anchor with a Master's Degree in Strategic Communications and Leadership.

The 1980s is thought of as a period of decadence, over the top spending and very little regard for the after effects. Tom Wolfe saw the makings of a really great story and captured it in Bonfire of the Vanities. 'Junk Bond King' Michael Milken was just one of the many faces of an over the top New York, and Bonfire takes you right into the center of the action.

Starting the Fire

The Bonfire of the Vanities was a novel by author Tom Wolfe. Wolfe was a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale University. Although he was offered jobs in academia, he decided to work as a newspaper reporter. Wolfe reported for The Springfield Union , the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune.

His novel Bonfire of the Vanities was published in the fall of 1987. Bonfire tells the story of several characters who are consumed with politics, their social standing and ultimately greed in 1980's New York City. The author actually wasn't writing a novel but worked to capture the essence of New York during that time with a series of 27 installments in Rolling Stone magazine.

These 'story parts' were published starting in 1984. This type of writing, called serial literature, was made popular in the 1830's with the success of Charles Dickens', The Pickwick Papers. Dickens work was published in 19 issues over 20 months.

Before its official publication as a novel, Bonfire was heavily edited by Wolfe. The title refers to a historical event that happened in Florence, Italy in 1497. During that actual bonfire, supporters of priest Girolamo Savonarola publically burned what they considered vain objects. This bonfire included writing, artwork, sculpture, cosmetics, music, playing cards and anything else that was deemed immoral. This title was a reference to the indulgent activities of 1980's New York.

The Major Characters

  • Peter Fallow - an alcoholic New York City newspaper reporter who is investigating a hit and run incident
  • Sherman McCoy - A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Bond Trader and self-proclaimed Master of the Universe
  • Maria Ruskin - The mistress
  • Henry Lamb - A young black guy killed by a hit and run driver
  • Larry Kramer - An over-zealous Jewish Assistant District Attorney
  • Reverend Bacon - Harlem Religious and Political Leader thought to be loosely based on Rev. Jesse Jackson and or Rev. Al Sharpton

The Story

The story is told from the point of view of Peter Fallow. Fallow was a newspaper reporter who investigated a hit and run accident. McCoy and his mistress were headed back into Manhattan from Kennedy Airport and took a wrong turn that put them in Bronx, NY. They ended up on a small side street. In order to pass, McCoy had to stop the car and get out to move some garbage cans. While out of the car he was approached by two young black guys. Being scared he jumped back in the car and sped away, hitting and critically injuring one of the boys.

Enter Fallow. He was assigned to write a series of articles about Henry Lamb. Lamb was the black guy that was thought to be maimed by a wealthy white driver.

There was evidence presented that linked McCoy to the case. This evidence and McCoy's evasiveness during police questioning made him a prime target. The District Attorney and prosecutor pushed for McCoy's arrest. The arrest really rattled him and caused him to lose out on landing a $600 million deal at work. He is forced to take a leave of absence, his friends distance themselves from him, and his wife leaves him during the ordeal.

Although McCoy is released on bond, he goes home to his $3 million dollar apartment where protesters have made him a target.

As Fallow follows the story deeper, he learns that Ruskin was in the car as well but when he tries to find her he discovers that she has left the country. He is able to track down her husband and invited him to dinner. During dinner, the husband dies. When his wife comes back, the DA offers her a deal: go along with the other witness and get immunity or be named as an accomplice. Ruskin tells this to McCoy not realizing that he is wearing a wire. Because of this tainted testimony, the judge dismisses her statement as evidence in the case.

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