By ANNE BARNARD
Twenty years ago, the acid-penned journalist Tom Wolfe unleashed his first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Skewering everyone from self-absorbed Wall Street millionaires to hucksterish street politicians, the sprawling satire painted a picture of a
declining inexorably into racial conflict, crime and greed. … New York
The novel tapped, to electrifying effect, a vein of anxiety that defined 1980s
. … To some New Yorkers, Mr. Wolfe’s satire was bitingly accurate, nailing both a racist criminal justice system and the politicians who played on white fear and minority anger for personal gain. New York
To others, it was a cynical endorsement of racial stereotypes that did not so much critique white paranoia as cater to it.
Barnard at least admits that Bonfire of the Vanities didn't so much "reflect" as "predict" most of the events it now appears to have been based on:
From the moment it was published in November 1987, new episodes in the drama of the metropolis seemed to unfold like chapters in Mr. Wolfe’s story.
Four white youths from Howard Beach, Queens, were already on trial for beating a black man who fled to his death in traffic on the
That same month, a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who was found smeared with feces in a garbage bag, said she had been assaulted by white men with badges, sparking a prosecution that later collapsed when it was determined that she had fabricated the story.
Wall Street convulsed as its stars were investigated for white-collar crime, culminating in the 1990 securities fraud conviction of Michael R. Milken, the “junk bond king.”
In the 1990s,
"When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just didn't strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say about the law or any other institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system… American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view."
Of course, the NYT's article doesn't remember to mention the NYT's long campaign last year to frame the Duke Lacrosse team, even though they were more innocent than Sherman McCoy -- headlines ripped from the story of Bonfire.
Barnard goes on
Mr. Wolfe’s real-life characters remain deeply divided, like their fellow New Yorkers, over what changed their city.
Mr. Hayes — using some of the eyebrow-raising ethnic language of his “Bonfire” character, Tommy Killian — gave credit to “the war on crime in
, which was basically won by white Catholic men from the boroughs.” New York City
Minorities in the courts “got treated like dogs, and if you were a legitimate guy in a poor neighborhood you had no shot at all,” Mr. Hayes said. But in his view,
crippled itself by blaming “society” for crime until Rudolph W. Giuliani came into office in 1994. New York
Wolfe himself says in an accompanying series of interviews with the models for various characters such as Al Sharpton ("Rev. Bacon"):
’s demographics were already shifting shortly after he finished the book, he noted. New York
"I first noticed this when “Bonfire” was being filmed [in 1990]. There was a slightly outrageous scene —night on the street in the
Bronx. Two cars are on fire — I mean, come on — on this block . Everyone on the block is a black drug dealer, black drug taker, black wino, black pimp, black hustler — it really was an outrageous caricature. There’s a big Hollywoodmovie being made at night — lights, stars. The whole neighborhood turned out, they’re watching this and saying — what’s this thing all about? Because they’re all Thais and Cambodians and Vietnamese."
The long financial boom that began in August 1982 simply made the city too expensive for a lot of marginal characters. That's why the crime rate has fallen less than the national average in a lot of nearby cities that they moved to.
By the way, this reminds me of what a remarkably bad job of casting Brian De Palma and company did in the 1990 movie adaptation. The whole project was pretty hopeless from the get-go. The problem is that the central character, Sherman McCoy, is a stuffed shirt bore, but the minor characters, such as Killian, his uber-Irish defense attorney, are wonderful. A 2-hour movie that concentrates on
But the casting didn't have to be so catastrophic. William Hurt, who was a big star at the time (before his drinking became a problem), was the obvious choice for