The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Book #218

Reviewer: Carol

This book, Wolfe’s first novel, is about New York City in the 1980s and the excesses of Wall Street where the players titled themselves the “Masters of the Universe”. But it is much more than that. There are four main characters to the story — a white millionaire bond trader, a Jewish Assistant District Attorney, a British ex pat alcoholic journalist and a black activist. It is a story about class and racism, wealth and poverty, ambition and downfall, over-reaching and lies.

The white trader and his mistress are out one evening and mistakenly venture into a rough section of the Bronx where they find the highway exit blocked by trash. The trader and his mistress exit the car to clear the highway and they are approached by two young black men who are perceived as predators. Upon racing back to the car, the mistress takes the wheel. The speeding car fishtails and strikes one of the young black men, sending him to the hospital in serious condition and launching a racially tainted hit and run media circus.

That circus is fuelled by the black activist and British journalist, with the Jewish Assistant DA sensing his chance at a high profile case that could assist his boss’ re-election. The mistress flees the country and the trader is arrested for hit and run. There follows all of the machinations of events leading up to a keenly anticipated trial. The trader faces demonstrators against racism and classism outside his pricey residence. He wears a wire in order to record the truth about who was driving the car from his mistress who has returned to the country for the funeral of her husband. It all results in a dismissal of the case due to tainted evidence. The second trail results in a hung jury, split along racial lines.

But the journalist wins the Pulitzer Prize, the Jewish Assistant DA loses his spot on the prosecution, the hit and run victim dies, the trader loses a civil case to the victim’s family, resulting in a $12 million liability, and the mistress re-marries. The former “Master of the Universe” is rendered penniless and estranged from his wife and daughter, awaiting trial for vehicular manslaughter. What goes up comes down.

It is a good book and was very popular when it came out in 1987. Tom Hanks starred as the trader in the film version in 1990, with Kim Cattrall as his wife, Melanie Griffiths as his mistress and Bruce WIllis as the journalist. The film was a commercial and critical flop.


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