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A reader's guide to Bonfire Of The Vanities

Updated Monday, 24th January 2011

Telling the story of man whose life rapidly spirals out of control, Tom Wolfe’s debut novel is November’s Book of the Month.

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Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 2 contains a warning: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.“ In church history, public conflagrations were sometimes staged - 'Bonfires of the Vanities' - to burn items that might tempt people to sin (for example, books or cosmetics).

The Dominican friar Savonarola held a great bonfire in Florence in 1497, to purge the city's evil: an event featured in George Eliot's novel Romola (1863). In art history there are many Vanitas paintings, reminding spectators of life's transience and the dangers of materialism.

Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities was serialised in Rolling Stone in 1984, revised, and then published as a novel in 1987. Set in New York in the mid-1980s, the protagonist is a 'Master of the Universe' type, Sherman McCoy, a mercenary Wall Street bond trader, who seemingly has everything he could wish for: a stunning Manhattan apartment, a fabulous car, a wife and a mistress.

The Wheatstone Bridge into The Bronx Creative commons image Icon Pro-Zak under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
The Whitestone Bridge into the Bronx, New York [Image: Pro-Zak under CC-BY-NC licence]

One night he and his mistress, Maria, accidentally drive into the Bronx. When they are approached by two black youths, they panic; one of the men is struck by the car, and McCoy ends up on trial. As the scandal mounts, his whole world seems to implode.

Wolfe's novel conveys society's greed, selfishness and corruption. Key characters include the Assistant District Attorney, Larry Kramer; the manipulative black activist, Reverend Bacon; and the British investigative journalist, Peter Fallow.

The 1990 film starred Tom Hanks, Kim Cattrall, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Griffith, F. Murray Abraham and Bruce Willis.

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