New York in the Eighties

by Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $19.95.
THE NEWS THAT Tom Wolfe was writing a novel made me feel like the teary-eyed boy of legend who said “Say it ain’t so” to Shoeless Joe Jackson after he had confessed to a part in the Black Sox scandal. For years Wolfe has been writing that journalists, having learned how to use the traditional techniques of narrative realism, have replaced novelists (who abandoned these techniques just as journalists were adopting them) as the cynosures of American literature. I don’t know of any leading critic who agrees with him, but the idiosyncrasy of the argument is part of its appeal. Wolfe’s last full-length book‚ The Right Stuff, which belongs on the short shelf of really successful nonfiction novels, seemed to be an attempt to prove his theory through his own work. Now he’s gone over to the other side.
To be fair, the novel Wolfe has chosen to write is exactly the kind he has criticized contemporary novelists for not writing—in his words, “the so-called ‘big novel’ of manners and society,”as invented by nineteenth-century writers like Dickens, Balzac, Thackeray, and Trollope. Over the past fifteen years Wolfe has made it clear that he prefers the nineteenth century’s tastes to today’s in all the arts. He attacked abstract painting in The Painted Word, and modern architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House. What little writing and speaking he has done on politics makes it clear that he is no friend of modernism there either. In the fiction of bygone days what he most admires is the novelists’ ambition to create a sweeping, accurate portrait of their whole society, which led them to do extensive firsthand reporting before they wrote and to fill their work with what Wolfe calls “status details” about food, dress, decoration, speech, and money. He wrote in 1973, “I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps the documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based on the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism.”
The Bonfire of the Vanities (which Wolfe at one point said, making his intentions crystal clear, that he was going to call Vanity Fair) is a throwback to the point of having been written in serial form, the way Dickens used to write, for Rolling Stone. It is about Sherman McCoy, a WASPy Wall Street bond salesman with a palatial apartment on Park Avenue, who is involved in a hit-and-run accident in the South Bronx that leaves a black high school boy fatally injured. Not wanting it known that his mistress, Maria Ruskin, the sexy young wife of an extremely rich old man, was in the car with him, Sherman leaves the scene of the crime. But the case becomes a cause for the press and the black leadership, and Sherman winds up getting found out and, after an agonizing decline, losing everything. The piot gives Wolfe a chance to present a half dozen of New York’s demimondes: the Bronx criminal courthouse and a Wall Street trading room (he obviously did a great deal of firsthand research on these two), the British-owned tabloid press, the localpolitics left, and the West Side Jewish liberal middle class, to which Sherman’s prosecutor belongs.
The story has strong echoes of real events, in particular the case of Edmund Perry, the Exeter graduate who died in a scuffle with a plainclothes cop in 1985, and the sensational insider-trading arrests of last year, which publicly ruined several young Wall Street hotshots and thereby brought enormous pleasure to the rest of New York. In a way this is another form of homage to the good old days of the novel: realistic novels from Anna Karenina to Native Son have had story lines ripped out of the day’s headlines. In further accordance with his views on fiction, Wolfe has packed The Bonfire of the Vanities with information: menus, brand names, household budgets, the architectural histories of buildings. He goes into long disquisitions on the differences among the leading white ethnic groups of New York. Evers now and then he’ll drop in a minor character who’s clearly recognizable—to name the three most obvious, the society realtor Alice Mason, the gossip columnist Suzy, and the journalist Alexander Cockburn (“Nick Stopping, the Marxist Journalist—Stalinist was more like it—who lived chiefly on articles flattering the rich in House & Garden, Art & Antiques, and Connoisseur”). Some scenes exist mainly to show readers what a Fifth Avenue dinner party, or the inside of a jail cell, is really like, or to enter into the record observations about changing social conventions—for instance, that riding in yellow taxis is no longer socially acceptable among New York big shots.
Very occasionally the procession of details becomes ungainly (“Sherman had often seen Hasidic Jews in the Diamond District, which was on Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. . . . ”), but for the most part Wolfe has proved his point: the use of reporting, subplots, and interlocking sets of characters need not be the exclusive province of novelists like Judith Krantz and Arthur Hailey. It isn’t inimical to literary quality. On the other hand, it isn’t a guarantee of literary quality either. A novel, or anyway an old-fashioned “big novel” of stature, is supposed to contain a profound vision as well as facts. Here Wolfe doesn’t do so well — not because he doesn’t have a vision, but because he has two and they’re incompatible.
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES begins as a rollicking but dark satire, closer to Waugh than to Dickens. Wolfe’s New York is pretty much the hellish place imagined by people who don’t live there. Everyone is obsessed with success, which seems to come mostly from stepping on somebody else. With the exception of the love of parent for child, genuine human relationships, as opposed to temporary alliances based on power-status-ego calculations, don’t exist. Everyone feels a constant, gnawing financial panic—even Sherman, with his million-dollar-a-year income. The political system is helplessly in the thrall of the gutter press and black demagogues. Everyone is afraid of street crime, and among whites it’s a short step from this fear to a primal urge to get away from blacks. “If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate,” a friend of Sherman’s tells him. Mississippi in the fifties couldn’t have been any more preoccupied with race than Wolfe’s New York; the book begins and ends with scenes of panicky white public officials confronting riotous black mobs.
New Yorkers’ many vanities seem perfectly understandable, even pleasant, against such a bleak backdrop—a calm, happy, unpretentious life is an impossibility in Wolfe’s version of New York. As an authorial voice, high-comic cynicism is appropriate too, and Wolfe can be very funny. The best leitmotif in The Bonfire of the Vanities is life in the freeloading, sneering, drunken community of British expatriates in New York. Wolfe skewers these people with dead-on affectionate malice. He’s also very good on fancy restaurants, celebrity funerals, and activist ministers.
When Wolfe’s humor doesn’t work, it is usually because he is writing about people who are earnest, as opposed to faux-earnest. Although he certainly has got the number of his many cheerful hustlers and posturers, he doesn’t at all dislike them, because he sees their game as the best revenge against the coldness at the city’s heart. In New York, to Wolfe, social pretense is not an overlay masking the true self, it is the true self. People who pretend to have no pretensions—mainly, middle-class liberals—offend Wolfe, and because he can’t summon any love for them he satirizes them ineptly, even cruelly. A scene in which a Village Voice writer hosts a brunch in SoHo, which you’d think would he red meat for Wolfe, falls completely flat; he expresses his disapproval by giving the man a receding chin and putting him in a T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band called Pus Casserole.
Also—oddly, considering that he is trying to create a vast social panorama— Wolfe doesn’t even much try to write about women. Every one of his leading characters is a man—in fact, a man in his thirties, the age of maximum unfulfilled ambition and financial strain. The demimondes of Wall Street and the Bronx courts are both particularly macho ones, and thus unrepresentative of the city as a whole, which doesn’t have any of the man’s-world feeling of London or Chicago. Wolfe’s female characters are all sketchy figures who exist mainly as foils for male preening. The men are absolute slaves to their rampaging sex drives, which don’t apply to their wives --but their extramarital affairs bring them only doom. In the sixties Wolfe often wrote magazine stories with fully realized female protagonists, and because feminism has since then acquired a quarter century’s worth of curlicues, by Wolfe’s lights the material is even better now. It’s too bad he didn’t use it.
THESE ARE QUIBBLES about what could have been a successful purely satirical novel. Wolfe has, however, an additional ambition for The Bonfire of the Vanities which is more substantially unrealized.
The main action of the book is the downfall of Sherman after the accident— his apprehension and indictment. It takes up so much space (more than 500 pages, counting many digressions), and is so elaborately agonizing, that it’s clear Wolfe must be up to something more portentous than getting a few chuckles out of showing a winner squirming. There are echoes throughout of the classic American twentieth-century novels about the snatching away of worldly success, such as An American Tragedy and Appointment in Samarra, both of which are about the disintegration of young businessmen; and the allusion to the towering classic of this genre‚ The Great Gatsby, is direct and unmistakable. For all his feinting toward the literature of Paris and London, Wolfe, who has a Ph.D. in American studies, appears to be trying for a place in the pantheon of chroniclers of the American dream.
Gatsby’s downfall, like Sherman’s, came as the result of a hit-and-run accident (though in a different outer borough, Queens). In both books the hero takes the blame, although his beautiful, rich, married partner in adultery (in Gatsby’s case Daisy, in Sherman’s Maria) was really the one driving. Wolfe seems to be using the comparison not just to put himself into a certain league but to make a point about how New York has changed between the twenties and the eighties. In The Great Gatsby the unprincipled arriviste, Gatsby, is destroyed, while the established socialites, Tom and Daisy, escape unscathed from the consequences of the accident. What saves them is that they have a ruthlessness of a higher order than Gatsby’s: Tom eliminates Gatsby and saves Daisy through the single stroke of telling the husband of the accident victim that it was Gatsby who killed his wife; this sends the man out to Gatsby’s estate with a gun. In The Bonfire of the Vanities the aristocrat, Sherman, is ruined and the self-invented rich person, Maria, spared, because she is more ruthless by far than he is.
Each step on Sherman’s downward path is marked by his irrepressible adherence to the outmoded, gentlemanly moral code of his father, a distinguished lawyer. Sherman doesn’t actually believe in the code the way the old man did—he knows New York is shark-town—but he can’t quite shake it either. In the final scenes he undergoes a transformation, as a result of which he is able to lie in furtherance of his interests, to punch someone out, and to talk in the tough patois of the Bronx courthouse. His triumphal last line is “It don’t matter!” By this time it’s too late for Sherman to save himself, but Wolfe’s implication is that if he had changed a little earlier he would still be the king of bonds. More broadly, the message is that the vulgarians now run New York (as well they should, since it’s either them or the unruly mob), in part because the WASPs have lost some kind of fundamental belief in their right to power.
The trouble is that Wolfe’s narrative voice doesn’t allow for the deep, almost lovely sadness of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, was a midwestern naif who was both awed and horrified by the rich people with whom he mingled; the invisible narrator of The Bonfire of the Vanities is much too knowing to be capable of either awe or horror. So while it is easy to feel sorry for Gatsby, who’s a crook, it’s hard to feel sorry for Sherman, who’s a good man; as a character, Sherman works best in the early going, when he is a lovable cad. The social message of Sherman’s story—that is, Wolfe’s editorial position on New York, as opposed to his reporting—is difficult to discern through the dense fog of joyful lampooning. Everything about the way Wolfe writes works against his achieving a resonant “bigness” of character and theme, and maybe he shouldn’t have tried.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is on the whole such a pleasure to read that the prospect of Wolfe’s continued absence from jqurnalism is actually bearable. But since his first novel is at heart an attempt at tragedy, it seems fair to hope that in the second one he’ll try farce. □