Title: The Bonfire of the Vanities
Author: Tom Wolfe
Narrator: Joe Barrett
Audiobook Length: 27 hours, 28 minutes
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 9 November 1987
“This bitingly hilarious American satire will forever define late-twentieth-century New York style.
Tom Wolfe’s bestselling modern classic tells the story of Sherman McCoy, an elite Wall Street bond trader who has it all: wealth, power, prestige, a Park Avenue apartment, a beautiful wife, and an even more beautiful mistress, until one wrong turn sends Sherman spiraling downward in a humiliating fall from grace.
A car accident in the Bronx involving Sherman, his girlfriend, and two young lower-class black men sets a match to the incendiary racial and social tensions of 1980s New York City. Suddenly, Sherman finds himself embroiled in the most brutal, high-profile case of the year, as prosecutors, politicians, the press, the police, the clergy, and assorted hustlers rush in to further their own political and social agendas. With so many egos at stake, the last priority on anyone’s mind is truth or justice.”
Thoughts on the Novel: What made The Bonfire of the Vanities a satire in the late 1980s makes this novel a rather sad, almost embarrassing story today. In actuality, it should not be this way. After all, the Wall Street greed, the economic divides, the racial and ethnic profiling, the muckracking, etc. all exist today. Yet, the New York City of the 1980s is not the NYC of today. Its inhabitants are different, forever scarred by September 11th. The sheer vulgarity of that era no longer exists. The acceptance of such overt racism and cultural epithets is no more. Today, The Bonfire of the Vanities is more historical fiction than satire and one that readers cannot take seriously given its extremes.
One of the main problems with the novel is that the characters, all of them, are so excessively one-dimensional and extreme in their viewpoints. There is not one likable character among them. What is worse is that there is not one sympathetic character among them. They are all too arrogant, too caught up in being right, too holier-than-thou to generate any sympathy. You find yourself rooting against them, which means that you change your loyalties every time another character takes over the narrative. This revolving door of emotional responses is exhausting and distracting.
The story itself loses importance in light of the violent responses readers will have to the characters, particularly the main ones. It is difficult to care about Sherman’s downfall when one doesn’t care about Sherman, Peter’s rise when he is so despicable, and so forth. In fact, the only character about whom the readers will care is the poor young man lying in a coma – if only because he is the only one to never say a line of dialogue throughout the entire story.
What makes it worse is the fact that there is not one good humanitarian out of the entire cast. They all have hidden, and not-so-hidden agendas, that dictate their every word and action. While this is not unusual in human nature, it is the extremes which make this behavior so distasteful. The fact that there is not one person in the entire cast who has no agenda is disturbing in its bleak picture Mr. Wolfe is presenting about humanity. Again, realizing that he did this on purpose to further emphasize his point about New York City in the 1980s, too much has happened in the world since then for modern readers to be okay with this.
At the end of the day, it is apparent that the bonfire has died out in The Bonfire of the Vanities. It no longer serves the same purpose it once did as far as the story it has to tell and the commentary it makes. Events like September 11th and other terrorist acts, the #blacklivesmatter movement, the recession and the government bailouts of companies “too big to fail”, and every other event that has rocked the nation since the 1990s make this story of greed and power lose its importance. It is no longer humorous; its messages no longer resonate with readers. We live in a different world, and The Bonfire of the Vanities no longer has its place as social satire within it.
Thoughts on the Audiobook: As an audiobook, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a difficult novel. Differentiating among the many voices is the biggest challenge facing anyone narrating the novel. There are so many characters that have recurring scenes; even worse, there are multiple mob scenes requiring different voices for each individual shout or comment. To that end, Joe Barrett does a fine job with the vocalization; he manages to use different voices for each and every main character and many of the minor/mob characters. He even emphasizes the satire through his vocalizations, affecting the most stereotypical voice as befits the various characters. Unfortunately, this does nothing but make it difficult to enjoy. The voices are so over-the-top that they become uncomfortable or even annoying. Listening to the story becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. As such, this is not the most enjoyable audiobook experience.