October 7, 2018


The Right Stuff, and Other Stuff: Tom Wolfe contained multitudes, too--some of them, at least, lasting contributions to American literature. (MICHAEL UPCHURCH, 9/18/18, American Interest)

Wolfe's provocative 1989 Harper's essay, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," made an after-the-fact case for what he was up to in Bonfire. He granted that capturing the teeming multi-ethnic chaos of New York City on the page was a daunting challenge. Still, he thought it was worth a try. And he believed the best way to do it was to bring back "the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep." Bonfire pulls it off--not that the book is soberly realistic. Instead, it's packed with stylization and artifice galore, full of farcical distorting mirrors that illuminate reality even as they warp it.

Bonfire is the tale of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond salesman and self-styled "Master of the Universe," living on swanky Park Avenue. When he and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, accidentally commit a hit-and-run in the Bronx, they go straight into cover-up mode. Sherman has qualms about this; Maria has no doubts at all.

Their victim is Henry Lamb, a mild-mannered black high-school senior who grew up in the projects and had plans to go to college. Lamb, in a coma, can't testify to what happened. There is another witness to the hit-and-run, but he has good reason to avoid the authorities.

With every prismatic twist and turn the book's elaborate plot takes, and with every new piece of hearsay it incorporates, Wolfe throws shifting, conflicting light on its pivotal event: the hit-and-run accident. No one's point of view is to be entirely trusted. No one emerges cleanly from the mess.

By the time Bonfire was published, Wolfe had lived in New York City for 25 years. He had the city in his blood. As a newspaper journalist in the early phase of his career, he was familiar with both the city's high places and its low places--and he was skeptical about them all. His 659-page satire features a sprawling cast of colorfully reprehensible characters: politicians, lawyers, social climbers, journalists, black activists, drug dealers, abusive cops, and people who defy every label we can conjure.

Wolfe's New York is vital, ridiculous, acrimonious, ugly. It's also riddled with greed, and Wolfe is practically a fetishist about indexing the worth of every material object in his protagonist's life. Sherman wears a $1,800 suit ("two-button, single-breasted, with ordinary notched lapels") and $650 shoes ("New & Lingwood of Jermyn Street, London"). He lives in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue and drives a $48,000 two-seat Mercedes roadster. Wolfe's frequent mentions of prestigious brand names ("Sheraton and Chippendale side tables," "a Lalique ashtray with a lion's head sculpted on the rim," "eight hundred dollars' worth of flowered cotton fabric from Laura Ashley") are like a nervous tic. It's as though Wolfe has taken an approach to fiction that Virginia Woolf disdained in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (too much attention to characters' external circumstances, she said of Arnold Bennett, and not enough focus on the interior workings of their minds) and burlesqued it into the stratosphere. Still, even Woolf might have been awed by Bonfire's mastery of stream-of-consciousness technique as it pulls us into the squirming, racing mind of Sherman McCoy as he tries to evade justice.

Wolfe may have thought he was writing a "big realistic novel" but the pure frenzied energy of Bonfire's prose lifts it into the realms of the surreal.Wolfe may have thought he was writing a "big realistic novel" but the pure frenzied energy of Bonfire's prose lifts it into the realms of the surreal. However dismissive Wolfe was in "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" about "Absurdist novels, Magic Realist novels and novels of Radical Disjunction," many of Bonfire's touches suit those labels. The book also fits nicely into a lineage of New York-set extravaganzas that includes Robert Coover's The Public Burning, Tony Kushner's Angels in America (which debuted just a few years later), and the New York fiction of Christina Stead, especially her novel A Little Tea, A Little Chat, about war profiteering in 1940s Manhattan. (Stead's great 1938 novel, House of All Nations--about fly-by-night bankers in 1930s Paris making money off the Crash--almost reads like a template for Bonfire, and her arguments in favor of the "many-charactered novel" in which the reader has to "draw his own conclusions from the diverse material, as from life itself," would probably get a hearty "Hallelujah!" from Wolfe).

The animosities powering Bonfire have a starkly contemporary ring in the 2010s. In certain passages, Wolfe even comes close to coining the mantra, "Black Lives Matter." When the clueless, alcoholic British reporter who breaks the McCoy story asks one of his sources what the black community is "exploding over," the man reasonably explains, "They're tired of being treated as if human life in the South Bronx means nothing!"

In a recent interview comedian D.L. Hughley, citing the current flurry of white people calling the cops about African-Americans sitting in a Starbucks, sleeping in a college library and other non-events, remarked, "The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people's imagination." That's a line that could have come straight out of Bonfire.

What does a writer who caught 1980s New York in a 659-page genie bottle do next? Take a crack at another city.

"A Man in Full" is set in an "absolutely sports-crazed Atlanta," and offers everything from real-estate scams and racial vitriol to snake-handling and prayers to Zeus. Via multiple plot strands, Wolfe explores his Urban New South setting from top to bottom. The book, despite its title, is mostly about what it's like to be un-manned. No one--rich, poor, black, white--comes out of the process unscathed.

Wolfe's protagonist Charlie Croker is a badly overextended real-estate developer whose catastrophic finances are about to make headlines in Atlanta. The path by which they become the stuff of media frenzy is extravagantly serpentine, encompassing a rape case that isn't quite a rape case, a mayoral campaign between two black candidates (one of them nicknamed "Roger Too White"), and a Bay Area frozen-food operation owned by Charlie (who, in his only voluntary attempt at economizing, instigates layoffs there). Among the newly jobless is young Conrad Hensley whose life becomes a veritable story of Job once he's let go from Croker Global Foods. Unable to support his family, he is pushed to a point where he lands in jail. There, in the book's most unusual twist, the sayings of Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus fall into Conrad's hands and become his guiding light.

Stoicism! Wolfe could not have chosen a school of thought more out of fashion in the 1990s--or in the 21st century, for that matter. Charlie, Conrad, and Roger Too White (whose real name is Roger White II) become caught up in questions of how to maintain their integrity of character. Their stories are complemented by thematically related subplots too numerous to name here, all of them woven into a rambunctious symphony of hope and hate, honor and despair.

Wolfe's journalistic prowess lends authority to every milieu he describes, from the swankiest do at Atlanta's High Museum to the deep-freeze operations of the Croker Global Foods warehouse. His Virginia background seems also to have aided him in accurately noting distinctions of class, pedigree, and accent within the South. His portrait of good old boys suddenly "afraid to let it be known that they weren't sophisticated enough to be cosmopolites of the new Atlanta" feels right on-target. His set pieces--a truly gothic horse-breeding scene, a lender-debtor showdown in a bank conference room, a gaffe-ridden dinner party where jokes about gays are offered as witticism to suspected Jewish liberals--are vintage Wolfe. As in Bonfire, he doesn't just capture an entire city but encapsulates a whole era. And in confirming that he could pull off the same trick twice, he established himself as a novelist for the ages. We can look at our own world--at the Kushner family's shady, shaky cash-flow problems with 666 Fifth Avenue, for instance--and say, "It's like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel."

Posted by at October 7, 2018 4:33 AM