The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Really fun read. There’s a lot of good stuff about New York esp. about the Bronx, about Fifth Avenue, and about Harlem. Also fun to read how New Yorkers talk: “Whaddaya whaddaya?” and “Howawya?”

Nice to know that acceptable WASP professions include trading bonds, founding a white-shoe law firm, and writing for the Times. Good also to know that good WASP names include Farnsworth, Fiske, Phipps, Thornton, Frost, and Overton.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for any of the characters until the middle of the book, when we realize that really everyone is conspiring against the protagonist. He is Sherman McCoy, the head bond trader at the fictional Pierce & Pierce.

Bonfire is a page-turner with literary effects. Sherman is persecuted by a journalist and a district attorney who wouldn’t at all want real investigative work to spoil a good story. These two almost literally feed on him: at one point McCoy’s body is quite diminished as the other two swell and become stronger.

Another good part: Sherman never finds the comfort he seeks in confession when he finally decides to break the news of his arrest to family and friends. Not one person thinks of Sherman, only how an embarrassment would impact themselves.

Here are some excerpts:

On Fridays the Taliaferro School discharged its students at 12:30 P.M. This was solely because so many of the girls came from families with weekend places in the country who wanted to get out of the city by 2:00 P.M.

Like most men, Sherman was innocent of the routine salutatory techniques of the fashionable hostesses. For at least forty-five seconds every guest was the closest, dearest, jolliest, most wittily conspiratorial friend a girl ever had.

Mirror Indigestion was now regarded as one of the gross sins of the 1970s. So in the early 1980s, from Park Avenue to Fifth, from Sixty-second Street to Ninety-sixth, there had arisen the hideous cracking sound of acres of hellishly expensive plate-glass mirror being pried off the walls of the great apartments.

Sheldon had the malicious streak of a court jester. Outwardly he was as loyal as a dog. Inwardly he seemed to be mocking him half the time. Sheldon always knew exactly how to distract him. He would bring up whatever he knew confused the Mayor most profoundly, whatever made him most dependent on Sheldon’s small but amazingly facile mind.

The man wants to confine matters to a quiet private argument, but the woman decides to play one of her trump cards, which is Making a Scene.

So that was Lopwitz’s overpowering instinct upon hearing of this crisis in Sherman’s life: to tell him of his inside knowledge and the important people he knew and what a hold he, the magnetic baron, had over the Big Name.

It was not for nothing that Steiner had founded The City Light and kept it going at an operating loss of about ten million dollars a year.