New York, specifically Manhattan, is class warfare personified. Every square inch of that city has been accounted for and has had a price attached. It wasn’t so bad in the seventies, despite the fact that the city was literally out of money. One could survive in it, provided one didn’t stroll through Avenue D, Brooklyn or the South Bronx. Times have changed with the population transfers of gentrification (Williamsburg, Brooklyn now costs almost as much as Manhattan did); but the total class system of Manhattan (based solely on wealth) is as relevant today as it was during the 80s when Bonfire of the Vanities was written.
Bonfire of the Vanities highlights social friction; in New York, there are exactly two classes – those with money and those without. You could judge a person solely by what street they lived on. Crack and AIDs hit the city like a pair of atomic bombs in the eighties, marking the backdrop of the novel. In this milieu, the characters of this book struggle to survive.
The story reminds me of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, in which a single event creates a whirlpool that draws innumerable people into its vortex. In this case, a very wealthy (but essentially good – the book isn’t dogmatic about its’ heroes and villains) makes the mistake of picking up his mistress at the airport, getting lost while driving (a wrong turn), ends up in the South Bronx, and while conversing with some black people, his racist Southerner girlfriend runs one of the black men over.
The wealthy man (Sherman McCoy) is a) beset with guilt and b) very, very worried about getting caught, even though it was his girlfriend from South Carolina who did the actual hit and run. But the merry –go- round has been put into play, and Tom Wolfe maintains a masterful use of the ensemble narrative to paint a picture of a city seething with racial tensions and an economic tightrope around the necks of everyone, including the wealthy. And let’s face it, a wealthy white man running over some black kid from the Bronx doesn’t look good.
As mentioned, there are heroes and villains, all of whom are struggling to survive in a hostile environment. Wolfe is quick to point out that civil servants, the apparent glue that’s holding the city together (this includes cops, assistant D.A.s, judges) are half a step removed from the people that they try and convict, while others make obscene amounts of money selling junk bonds; and even these people, like Sherman McCoy, are hemorrhaging money like it’s going out of style.
Wolfe likes the Irish Americans, but ethnicity is only a facile identifier in this rotten apple. Yes, you can make judgments based on a given person’s ethnic/social background, but that is not the ultimate arbiter of worth as a human being. The assistant DA in charge of the McCoy case is a Jewish man named Karp, and more than anything he wishes he was Irish, as he feels that’s the ultimate level of masculinity and virility – far better than being a “mere Jew”. To overcompensate, he nails McCoy to the wall and acts like Robespierre.
There are some excellent assessments of what the law actually means, power and authority, the vast ocean of difference between those that merely wield official power and the power that stems strictly from class. It’s also wickedly funny; Tom Wolfe wrote the Electric Kool Aid Test and The Right Stuff, and each of these books maintain a level of irony that’s embodied in Wolfe’s writing. You’ll be quoting this book; I know that I do.