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16th June
2010
written by Steph

Tom Wolfe is one of those authors whom I’ve heard tons about, but up until recently, I’d never read. You know the type: John Irving, Stephen King, and others of that ilk. A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Bonfire but then was immediately put off by its 600+ page count, because I am scared of books that weigh more than I do. Other than its impressive size, I knew pretty much nothing about this book when I picked it up. I recall that I read somewhere that it’s one of those books that often goes overlooked and that this was a shame, but that’s about it. I didn’t even know why it was purportedly so egregious for the book to be the perpetual wallflower. For those of you who need a little bit more to go on in order to take a book out on a first date, the gist of the book is as follows: Sherman McCoy is a highflying Wall Street bond trader who has it all: the designer apartment in Manhattan, the perfect family, not to mention the mistress on the side. One night when he picks up his lady on the side, the two wind up taking an unforeseen detour through the Bronx… a side trip that has disastrous consequences. As Sherman struggles to do the right thing, he soon finds the life he’s built and the power he’s earned is more fragile than he ever imagined. Bonfire is one of those interesting books that is both fluffy and weighty, both in terms of the scope and its writing. It’s a book that’s easy to get lost in, that engages the “fun” centers in your brain, but one that also has a more pressing aim at hand as well. For all the adultery and lavish dinner parties and soap opera-y twists, Bonfire is a penetrating examination of race and class in New York City in the 1980s.  It paints a really interesting and (I daresay) accurate portrayal of the black-white conflict that occurred within the city, and likely still does to some extent. Wolfe manages to walk the tightrope of social exposé and pop fiction with great style. The politics never overshadow the plot and people of the novel, and yet one cannot easily dismiss the novel as one without substance, even though it is thrilling and absorbing (and yes, a mass market paperback, if talking about my copy). Wolfe also manages to infuse his characters with enough depth and internal conflicts that they never feel like caricatures, which is important in this type of fiction. Often I feel like long novels eventually lose steam and sag, but I devoured the last 200 pages of this book in order to find out how everything would turn out. Like a frenzied ping pong match, the balance of power and truth is constantly shifting throughout the novel’s course, and it’s difficult to predict how everything will turn out for Sherman et al. I can’t say, however, that despite being riveted at times, this book couldn’t have done with some trimming. It’s hard for long books to beyond reproach when it comes to page length, and there were definitely times where I felt the book could have been tightened up, as certain sections felt redundant, simply reiterating information that I felt had been sufficiently established at that point. It’s worth noting that the novel was initially published serial fashion in Rolling Stone magazine, which I think might contribute to some of the repetition that occurs as Wolfe may have wished to refresh readers’ memories after lengthy gaps in publication. Still, apparently Wolfe did significant revisions before Bonfire was published as a novel, so I wish some of the unnecessary bloat had been reduced. One other thing I’ll mention is that I found the writing in the novel rather enigmatic. There was nothing offensive or incorrect about it, there was just something about it that struck me as very much unlike the novels I tend to read. There’s been a lot of talk on blogs lately about what makes something literary fiction, and while I agree that the designation is nebulous, as I read Bonfire there was something about the writing that made me feel that I was reading an example of something that was fiction, but not necessarily literary fiction. The writing seemed very straightforward and direct; concerned with telling a story, titillating the reader, not as deeply concerned in playing or experimenting with language. I want to stress that the book is not poorly written, nor is there a lack of style in Wolfe’s writing, it just felt like the writing was meant merely as a means of delivering a story and a message. Again, there was no single passage or phrase I could point to as an example of why this book struck me as not literary fiction, but rather an overall sense that developed as I read. And certainly I don’t mean for my personal labeling of this novel as “not literary fiction” to act as a condemnation or dismissal of the book. It was a wonderfully engrossing read that sucked me in and made me forget about my own life for a while. If you’re one of those people who enjoy long books (or have a beach vacation in your future) that thrill and defy your expectations, then I urge you to give Bonfire of the Vanities a go. Don't let the ugly MMP version dissuade you - apparently there's a shiny trade paperback version out there! With books like this, I’ll soon have my phobia of chunksters well in hand! Rating: 4 out of 5

18 Comments

  1. I haven’t heard of Tom Wolfe before, but I am the sort of person who enjoys long books that thrill and defy your expectations! I’ve added it to my wishlist!

    I hope that you get over your fear of chunksters soon – most of the best books are long ones 🙂

  2. Eliza
    06/16/2010

    I JUST picked this up at McKay’s — I read “I am Charlotte Simmons” in high school, which was entertaining, but cliched and over-the-top (and, I’d heard, much less interesting than “Bonfire”). Will have to start this now after reading your review. Only problem is that my copy is (gulp) a hardcover — maybe carrying it around can pass as an arm workout…

  3. 06/16/2010

    I loved some of the keen insights in this book. And how could we ever get along before he added the phrase “social x-ray” to our vocabulary? The funny thing is, when this book came out, it was so popular, so when his next book came out, A Man Is Full, everyone rushed to get it, and it turned out to be virtually unreadable! Oh well. By the way, the movie (with Tom Hanks) of Bonfire is very good also – even if you’ve already read the book!

  4. 06/16/2010

    I have come across this book a few times, and have always shied away from reading it. I am not sure if it was the length, or the fact that I didn’t think the book would be engaging, but reading your review makes me want to pick this up. I am not so concerned with the fact that it’s not really literary because some books can get away with just being plain old fiction. I am more concerned with the fact that it tells a really good and engrossing story. I have not read Wolfe yet, so this might make for an interesting introduction for me. Thanks for sharing this review. You’ve made me really think twice about this book!

  5. 06/16/2010

    I remember backpacking through Europe and being desperate for a book to read. I plucked this one out of a trash can on the beach at Nice. Funny how I can remember that, but absolutely nothing about the book. I must’ve been distracted by the all of the sites.

  6. 06/17/2010

    I have this one and I have always meant to read it but just haven’t yet. Thanks for your review and for reminding me that I really should get a move on.

  7. 06/17/2010

    @ Jackie: I think you would find this book really interesting – I know you don’t tend to read tons of American fiction, so I think this would provide an interesting perspective on the country (well, New York City, at least) for you!
     
    @ Eliza: Great minds think alike! Normally I hate MMP, but in this case, the small size was certainly a boon! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it!
     
    @ rhapsody: I totally forgot about some of the great terminology that Wolfe coins in this novel! Also, we have a copy of A Man in Full… gulp! I’d heard that the film version of Bonfire was a flop, but it could be interesting to watch and see how they adapt such a lengthy and involved novel.
     
    @ zibilee: This was definitely a fun read, and it’s plotted so well you don’t think about the page length (most of the time). I definitely think this is one you’d really enjoy!
     
    @ softdrink: Ha! It’s funny what we remember (or don’t!) about books! My memory for plot is notoriously bad, so I don’t blame you for drawing a blank!
     
    @ Stephanie: I hope you enjoy it! You don’t seem to shy away from long books, so this could be right up your alley!

  8. 06/17/2010

    I think I may agree that Tom Wolfe is not literary fiction. But I think I would say that it is very intelligent popular fiction. But that may be just because his prose is so easy to read and his stories do tend to suck one in. He is one of the few blockbuster U.S. novelists who I like to read. And that is despite the fact that he was a big supporter of GW Bush. Although I have quibbles with all of them I have also enjoyed The Right Stuff (yes, just like the movie), A Man in Full (much less impressive than B of the V, but interesting nonetheless), and I am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe also wrote an interesting, humorous and short non-fiction diatribe against modern architecture called from Bahaus to Our House. I don’t necessarily agree with it all but I believe he beat Prince Charles to the punch when it comes to modern architecture. I haven’t been able to get into any of his stuff from the 60s like the iconic Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test.

  9. Kathleen
    06/17/2010

    This one has been on my list to read forever. I think I would have read it sooner but the movie that was made of this was such a disaster that it kind of turned me off of the story. Pretty lame to have a movie keep me from reading the book but that’s what happened!

  10. I’m the same way with Tom Wolfe – I know I should read him, I just haven’t yet. 600 pages seems like too much for me right now though… my brain just can’t take that 🙂

    The writing style comment is interesting to me, mostly because Wolfe is often credited with having such an innovative style in earlier books. It’s odd he might have lost some of that now.

  11. 06/18/2010

    This was supposed to be one of “the” defining books of the 80s (or was that the 90s). Whatever the case may be, whenever I have seen it around I just never was interested enough to pick it up and read it.

    I guess I thought he was too dated or something

  12. 06/18/2010

    @ Thomas: I agree that Wolfe’s fiction is very intelligent, however popular it may be. Like you, I don’t read many “blockbuster” authors, but I foresee myself reading more Wolfe in the future!
     
    @ Kathleen: I’ve heard the movie is a hot mess, so I’m not sure I’ll watch it. But I do understand about a movie turning you off of a book. I wouldn’t want to read Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist simply because of how much I LOATHED the movie!
     
    @ Kim: Perhaps Wolfe’s style was innovative back in the ’80s? Or maybe such statements were directed at his early non-fic stuff from the ’60s? Nothing wrong with the writing, but I didn’t find it particularly innovative.
     
    @ Nishita: The book is certainly dated, but I think a good portion of it is timeless (for better or for worse). I wouldn’t worry about feeling like its “too ’80s” or anything like that.

  13. Yeah, I only know Wolfe from his ’60s nonfiction, so I’m sure that’s what the innovative comments were in reference too. But it still seems odd he’d lose that edge, especially in fiction since there tends to be more room for experimenting there.

  14. 06/20/2010

    Like you, I have put this off because on so many occasions I have been this book being compared to Less Than Zero by Bret East Ellison, which I don’t enjoy. Reading your thoughts confirms my pre-disposition that this book falls into the realm of fiction but with more in-depth characters. So the verdict is I might give this one a try because there seems to be more of a plot than Less Than Zero.

  15. 06/20/2010

    Haha, those books you’ve never read were the books I used to read a lot of. What’s funny is I had this exact same MMP copy you have, got from a garage sale. I wanted to read it but was also daunted by the size. Then I lost it along the way. Wonder where it went to?

    I’m surprised and glad both that you liked this, actually. 😀 Maybe when I find another MMP copy at a sale..

  16. 06/20/2010

    @ Kim: I can’t say for sure that he lost his edge, just that to me it didn’t seem hugely apparent. It could just be that in his fiction he was attempting to appeal to a more mainstream audience because it was first published in a place like Rolling Stone, or it could be that I tend to read a lot of “edgy” fiction that eclipses Wolfe. Somehow I doubt the veracity of the latter… 😉
     
    @ Matt: I haven’t read Less Than Zero, so I can’t compare the two for you, but what I can say is that plot is certainly not lacking in this book. It’s well paced and well drawn, so I doubt you’d be disappointed with it!
     
    @ claire: I think I picked this up before I started to get overly picky about the aesthetics of my library! I probably wouldn’t have picked the MMP up today, but I will admit that even if I generally eschew that type of printing, I did appreciate the more manageable size.
    Oh, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading John Irving and Steven King et al., I just was pointing out that despite their popularity, I’ve somehow managed to go 27 years without reading anything by them!

  17. 06/28/2010

    I’m taking your word for it. 🙂

  18. 06/28/2010

    @ Matt: Again, I haven’t read the other book so I can’t give you a completely well-researched opinion, but I’ll just say I liked this one a lot and hope you do too!

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