100/365/11: Bonfire of the Vanities

After what feels like ten years, I am. Finally. Finished. With this. Effing. Book!

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Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe is a brilliant novel; well-written and executed, but entirely exhaustive.

This is the sock basket of books. Any moms out there will cringe at that mention, but for those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me explain…

I have five people in my home, four of which are female, so you can imagine the laundry. It washes, it dries, and it goes in the basket for the sorting ceremony. Most clothing can be hung, folded, put away. But there is an elusive item that remains, unable to cross over to its resting place for one solitary reason: it’s a damn sock and it needs a match.

Needy little shits, socks are. Co-dependent a-holes. Damsel socks in distress waiting for their knights. Sloppy and dejected man socks longing for a sugar mama. Laying in wait until they find their other half, they shuffle around in the basket during the laundering activities until they all fall to the bottom of the wash barrel.

Later, you’ll turn on a movie and settle down to match those little suckers. And it will take hours of digging and churning and fuming to figure out the puzzle that is the matched sock dilemma. Ultimately, you’ll hit the end of your rope with all possible combination options exhausted. And you know what happens then? There will still be socks. Unmatched socks. Single socks. Socks committed to a dank existence in their mother’s basement. Socks that will remain on the Tinder of your laundry basket no matter how many times you swipe left.

That is this book. Every chapter feels like the first chapter, with the author delving into the minutest of details to include in his portrayal of the vanities in the bonfire. Don’t misunderstand. It’s good – great, actually – and well worth a read. But it is looooooooooooooooong, and chock full of adjectives and explanations I could have done without. With that caveat, I’ll get on with it.

At first glance, this novel appears to be an accusatory study into the phenomenon of excessive wealth. It is, but that’s not all it is. The “vanities” criticized by Tom go beyond the limits of mere riches to touch many other symptoms of the human condition. Righteousness, beauty, race, intelligence, bravado, politics and religious racket all have their moment in the sun. Wolfe parades these theories through multiple characters I feel like I now know personally. Sherman McCoy, Maria, Kramer, Fallow, Reverend Bacon and Attorney General Weiss are all now regulars in the recesses of my literary mind.

The character development is top notch. It’s almost as good as his depiction of a hangover, which is by far the best I’ve ever read. He also captures the true essence of the ladies of snobbery. We see it clearly through Judy, the epitome of the soured wife, and Maria, the deep fried mistress of Foghorn Leghorn proportions. And then there’s this gem:

“The women came in two varieties. First, there were women in their late thirties and in their forties and older (women “of a certain age”), all of them skin and bones (starved to near perfection). They were the social X rays. Second, there were the so-called Lemon Tarts. These were women in their twenties or early thirties, mostly blondes (the Lemon in the Tarts), who were the second, third, and fourth wives or live-in girlfriends of men over forty or fifty or sixty (or seventy), the sort of women men refer to, quite without thinking. What was entirely missing was that manner of woman who is neither very young nor very old, who has laid in a lining of subcutaneous fat, who glows with plumpness and a rosy face that speaks, without a word, of home and hearth and hot food ready at six and stories read aloud at night and conversations while seated on the edge of the bed, just before the Sandman comes. In short, no one every invited…. Mother.”

Women consistently take a backseat to the male voices of this narrative, so prepare yourself for that. With the exception of Maria, they’re merely accessories to the larger plot. They serve purposes essential to the thriving libidos of surrounding men and not much more. There was certainly not a notably convincing formidable female in the bunch.

At the center of this story is race. Wolfe makes excessive mention of the Wasps, and the Black Youth, the Irish, the Jews, the Brits and the Yankee idiots. The appropriate stereotype is attached. It’s certainly a book from which to gain perspective without the offending account of the author being on “their” side.

The most amazing thing about this book is that there is not one redeemable character. There is no hero good guy, or even a villainous bad guy. It left me sympathizing at several turns, but at no point did I feel I wanted anyone to win.

In one particular passage right around chapter 26, Wolfe portrays a death in an affluent New York restaurant. It’s this parable that shed the most light on the message for me. The deceased, having collapsed to the floor with not a finger lifted to help him becomes the enemy of the guests. They simply cannot be bothered with his plight, and they resent his dying in their presence. Patrons look on in disgust before returning to their meals while waiters merely step over his lifeless body to deliver their delicacies on silver platters. It’s a purposeful exchange, ripe with hilarity and shameful truth.

In our current head-shaking social structure so bent on its return to a caste system, these accounts seem all-too-familiar. Isn’t it amazing how a story copyrighted in the 80’s would continue to ring so heavily in modern ears? It seems we, like our fathers before us, still have much to learn.

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