Book Report: Bonfire of the Vanities

I tried to predict how much I would like reading this by extrapolating from other things about Tom Wolfe: he has a distinctive persona and a white suit, A Man In Full got panned in its setting/my hometown of Atlanta, and my mom said Bonfire was pretty good back in the day.  The only thing I’d read of his was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in my Learning About The Beats->Hippies moment after reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in school (I liked it but found my middle school self embarassed for him during his forays into attempted beat-ish wordflow: “grok/ the groovy” &etc!), if you don’t count once paging through The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby trying to figure out what it was about and forming the definite adolescent opinion that Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is a silly title for a book.

I left the book in NYC so you get this picture instead

Which is to say that I really had no idea about anything!

I liked this book so much that I didn’t mind that my flight to NYC was grounded for an extra hour and circled the Boston airport for another hour because the POTUS was flying in for Ted Kennedy’s funeral (don’t ask about taking a connecting flight through another city for a trip across my state.  Money talks.) because it gave me more time to read.  I read in the cab on the way to the UWS and almost got violently carsick because it was dark and I was in the back of one of those minivan cabs and I was trying to read from other people’s headlights (this is another theme from my childhood although I never got carsick then, even when macerating mass quantities of Bubble Yum Cotton Candy/Blue Raspberry).  Ordinarily I would have been really put out that I got into town 4 hours late but this time I was secretly really happy because I got the time to devour the book in one mostly uninterrupted sitting.  I read it in the cab line, I read it in the terminal and almost missed the first flight.

That isn’t to say that this is going on my list of favorites, but it is to say that I forced it on one of my book-loving friends there to keep and read and pass on.  That’s another theme, as if I should be writing about myself instead of doing this book report: my tendency to try and make people read books I like.  It works, if they already like books.

It reminded me more than anything of certain aspects of American Psycho.  There’s the same obsessive namedropping of brands, restaurants, and people, and the same lack of perspective on the part of the protagonist, who is a Scion of Money.  Bonfire is in the third person, though, and more importantly there are other characters drawn just as large and as colorfully, and their lives are deliciously interconnected.

I definitely had it in my mind as a Classic, or at least something you’re supposed to have read, and then it surprised me by being funny and comic and bold and drawn in broad strokes.  I think it also startled me that the plot became more important than the writing, at least for me, or more prominent or important while I read it.  Because I am a totally gross culture vulture.  I mean, the writing is obviously fantastic.  But it has an epilogue.  That means plot is really important!  That didn’t happen in Infinite Jest… I mean, it sort of did.  Yikes.

Two things though: Wolfe does this thing where his characters’ assessments of situations/persons are really frequently stated.  Like I said, I gave the book to a friend, so I can’t pull out any examples, but it annoyed me.  It probably wouldn’t annoy anyone else.  Second thing is that ever since Film and Media Studies I have been seeing the male gaze anywhere and everywhere, but I had never seen it in a novel.  I mean the book is about the clashes of men who are or want to be powerful, and it’s from their perspective that we see these women, but it still struck me.

The verdict is that you should read it when you’re going to sit around for a while and don’t want to be aware that time is going by.  Or I guess if you’re the kind of person who can read a chapter or so at bedtime each night it would definitely keep you interested, but I have no idea really because I can’t read like that.  Or if, like me, you’re pretty woefully ignorant of Tom Wolfe in general and his fiction writing in specific and want to be both educated and totally engrossed.


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