The main character of the story is Sherman McCoy. He’s a successful New York City bond trader in the 1980swho lives with his wife and their young daughter in a Park Avenue Co-Op. Despite his success, the cost of maintaining the lifestyle and the appearance of success demanded by the people in his social circles—coupled with his wife’s extravagant spending habits—quickly deplete the family’s financial resources.
Sherman is engaging in an affair with Maria, a younger woman and the socialite wife of another millionaire from Park Avenue. While collecting Maria from the airport one night, Sherman makes a wrong turn in the Bronx. They are approached by two young African-American men whom Sherman perceives as a threat. They speed off, with Maria behind the wheel, and when the car fishtails, it strikes one of the young men. Maria and Sherman decide to keep this encounter and the accident a secret.
Albert Vogel, an unscrupulous attorney, learns of the accident, and passes information on to a friend of his, Peter Fallow, at the newspaper The City Light
. Peter writes stories that distort enough of the facts to incite social unrest, and one leader of an African-American group, Reverend Bacon, uses the accident as a spark to provoke social change.
District Attorney Abe Weiss, meanwhile, is in the midst of his reelection campaign. Reverend Bacon has vocally opposed Abe’s campaign, so to court African-American votes, Abe aggressively prosecutes Sherman. The Assistant D.A. assigned to the case, Larry Kramer, struggles with self-esteem, so he seizes upon the case to impress Shelly Thomas, a woman he’d like to begin having an affair with.
Sherman’s legal issues begin to impact his work performance, and he is unable to secure an investor for a large bond project he’s working on. This was Sherman’s opportunity to save his home, and coupled with his impending indictment, his personal and professional life falls apart. He’s placed on leave at work, and his wife leaves with their daughter.
Peter hears a rumor that it was Maria, not Sherman, behind the wheel of the car at the time of the accident, but she has fled the country. He meets with Maria’s husband at a fancy restaurant under the false pretenses of writing a story about the rich and the famous. During the dinner, Maria’s husband suffers a seizure and dies. Maria returns to the United States for the funeral. Peter spies on a conversation between Maria and Sherman which confirms that Maria was behind the wheel at the time of the accident.
Peter’s story pushes A.D.A. Kramer to offer Maria a deal: Either corroborate with the other witnesses, or face charges for being an accomplice herself. Maria explains this to Sherman while he’s wearing a recording device, and when the judge hears the conversation, he dismisses the case on account of the tainted testimony.
The book concludes with an update on all its characters. Peter wins a Pulitzer Prize. Maria has escaped prosecution and remarried. Sherman’s re-trial ends in a hung jury that was split along racial lines. Broke, he awaits another trial, his wife still gone.The Bonfire of the Vanities
is an example of the perceived excesses of the 1980s, and is seen as a critique on overwhelming materialism and presumed privilege of the financially successful. The book is populated with people who are obsessed with climbing social and economic ladders, to the detriment of their own lives and the lives of people who would get in their way. Even characters who purport to have social and societal good in mind, attorneys and clergymen, are portrayed as immoral and selfish, operating for their own advancement over the improvement of others.
The novel is satirical, and as such, the excesses it portrays are often played to extremes.
The novel’s title comes from the actual bonfire of the vanities, an event that occurred in 1497. In Florence, Italy, Dominican
priest Girolamo Savonarola
, who was ruling the city at the time, ordered the burning of all objects that the Church considered sinful, including cosmetics, mirrors, art, and books.The Bonfire of the Vanities
was Wolfe’s first work of fiction, after an incredibly successful career in journalism and other nonfiction writing, including the books The Right Stuff
and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
. The novel retains much of Wolfe’s usual social commentary, however, serving as both a work of fiction, and an exploration of New York City life in the early 1980s.
The novel received strong reviews from critics upon its publication (after being serialized in Rolling Stone
), and in 1990, it was adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis
, Melanie Griffith
, and KimCattrall