The book The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe tells the story of an affluent businessman, Sherman McCoy, and how his life enters a downward spiral after a hit and run accident. The Bonfire of the Vanities takes place in New York City in the late nineteen eighties. Sherman is a thirty-eight year old successful bond salesman for a large Wall Street firm, Pierce and Pierce. He is married to an interior decorator named Judy and they have a six-year old named Campbell, who is very precious to him. Sherman is constantly bothered by the stress of having a million dollar loan to pay off for his Park Avenue apartment and by the guilt he feels about having a mistress.
Maria Ruskin is a young, southern, attractive woman who is married to an older millionaire. The Bonfire of the Vanities also tells the story of Larry Kramer, an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. His lifestyle is dramatically different from that of Sherman McCoy. Kramer lives in a small apartment with his wife and infant son. Kramer, like Sherman, is trapped in a loveless marriage and dreams of affairs with young, sexier women than his own wife, Rhoda.
One night after picking up Maria at the airport, Sherman makes a wrong turn in his Mercedes and they end up in a very bad neighborhood in the Bronx. Two young black men approach them and Sherman gets scared and assumes that they are trying to mug him and Maria. After a struggle, Maria speeds away and Sherman thinks they may have hit one of the boys so he suggests telling the police. Maria assures him that everything will be all right so Sherman pushes the accident to the back of his mind.
However, a few days later, Sherman reads about the hit and run in a tabloid called The City Light. A drunken journalist named Peter Fallow had gotten word of the story and he made it into a scandal. A Harlem leader and opportunist, Reverend Bacon, has gotten involved in story and turns the accident into a racially motivated attack. The press turns the boy who was hit, Henry Lamb, into a political martyr for the minority communities. When the police find out Sherman was responsible for the grave condition of Henry Lamb, who was diagnosed as likely to die, the community was outraged. Various civil rights groups, and especially Reverend Bacon, go after Sherman because he is a rich, white WASP.
They argue that Sherman cannot get any special treatment just because he comes from Park Avenue. This causes the police to go after Sherman more fiercely than what they would normally do in this type of hit-and-run situation. The District Attorney, Abe Weiss, is up for re-election and he uses Sherman to get in good with the minority communities that were not supporting him. Sherman loses everything including his family, his money, his social status and his freedom.
He was arraigned for charges of manslaughter after Henry Lamb dies. The Bonfire of the Vanities reflects the time period of the 1980's in prejudice and economic opportunities. A major theme of the book was racial tensions in New York City. Tom Wolfe reflects the actual racial tensions of New York City this time from early on in the book. In the prologue, the Mayor of the city loses support of the black community during a riot in Harlem and becomes known as the Mayor of white New York.
This situation is similar to the real-life situation in 1983 with Mayor Ed Koch who also lost support and was categorized as a racist, however he did not give up as easily at his riot as the fictional mayor did in the novel. Also Reverend Bacon is similar to the real-life figures of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who get frequently act as a voice for the minority community in order to further their own goals. In real-life racial tensions exist, like in the book, because the bad areas of the city are filled by the black and Latino communities, while the affluent, rich areas are home to mostly white WASPs. The Bonfire of the Vanities also illustrates the real-life economic caste system of New York City.
The novel shows the three levels of social classes and the distribution of power in the city. The top caste is filled with what Sherman would call "Masters of the Universe" and "Social X-Rays." These people are the wealthy WASPS, who are considered successful and the women they marry. The second caste is the politicians, like Abe Weiss, and slightly lower than them are the police and assistant DA's like Kramer. The third caste would be the poor, minority communities in the Bronx and Harlem. This economic caste is very true in real-life New York.
As in the novel, conflicts often break out between these castes because of racism and prejudice. A critical decision made in The Bonfire of the Vanities is Sherman's decision not to trust his instincts and alert the police of the hit- and-run accident immediately. After the accident took place, Sherman allowed himself to be convinced by Maria to forget about it. Sherman felt that this was wrong and went against his gut feeling when he did not tell the police. This is critical decision because if Sherman had told the police it would have completely changed the course of events that was to follow. If Sherman and Maria had immediately told the police their story, the minority communities would not have become outraged.
The whole incident would be regarded as an accident and the consequences would have been minimal. By not telling the police what happened that night, Sherman caused his life to enter a downward spiral. His decision effected the outcome of the novel by turning what could have been considered a mistake into a heinous crime in the eyes of the people. If he had gone to the police, there would not have been such a fuss over the accident and there would have been no racial tensions involved. By reporting the accident, Sherman would have saved himself the humiliation and the pain that he went through while losing everything. Sherman would have also probably not have received any jail time, or even fines.
I felt the novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was an interesting and compelling piece of literature. I think the book was very interesting because the characters were all realistic and multi-dimensional and the variety of characters gave you almost every perspective of New York City possible. Wolfe's use of very different characters made the reader understand the life and the views of many different types of people in New York City. The book was very entertaining because it was modern and at times amusingly similar to real-life events. The plot was very realistic especially because of all the different angles which the reader was able to experience. I enjoyed the book a great deal because I felt that it was interesting how Wolfe was able to make the story so true to life in real-life New York City.
I liked how all the characters had many different aspects to their personalities, which helped them, come alive throughout the book. I feel that Wolfe's interpretation of the time period was extremely accurate and helped make the book very entertaining.