I ALWAYS finish books. I’ve read a lot of good books, and I’ve read a lot of less-good books. And to be clear, I like holding on until the end, because a novel or collection of stories or whatever that may initially not be so hot might have some redeeming quality by the end. But now I can say that The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe has got me. I really do believe that when it comes to art, “to each their own.” If someone recommends a story to me that I don’t end up liking, I still try to finish their recommendation—I like to see where they’re coming from. However, with Bonfire, I pick it up every month or so, then sit it down after a few pages. I’ve been halfway through it for three years at this point, and now I think I can finally throw in the towel.
Oh well—there’s a first time for all sorts of firsts.
I initially grabbed Bonfire because I went to a book sale with Leah and there were a good thirty copies of it on display (“It must be great!” I thought, not minding that all copies were marked for twenty-five cents). And the author, Tom Wolfe, was someone until recently I thought was from North Carolina. Go to Asheville, and “he” is huge there—everything, is seemingly, named after him. Last week I found out the error of my ways, however, as it finally became clear to me that Asheville is about Thomas Wolfe the playwright, who lived from 1900-1938. Bonfire’s Tom Wolfe lived from 1930-2018, and he was based around New York.
So if you didn’t catch it, why did I pick up this book? Because I mixed up two names. Oops.
BUT MOVING ON, critics often call Bonfire of the Vanities something like “the quintessential 80’s novel,” and I think that’s exactly why I can’t get into it. The references are boring and the humor has gone out of fashion. Or to be more specific, seemingly everything is a joke about conspicuous consumption, and there isn’t too much else going on. And it’s weird, because I love 80’s movies and music. But Bonfire is a single note symphony. Additionally, Wikipedia tells me that it was originally published in serial form, which might explains why this is so huge without much going on (ever wonder why Dickens is so long—well serial form is your answer, as more installments = more money).
For a “better” version of Bonfire, perhaps check out Bright Lights, Big City written by Jay McInerney in 1984. It has all of the satire and all of the references of Thomas’s work, it also takes place in the 80’s in New York City, but it’s about 75% slimmer. BUT IN ANY CASE, The Bonfire of the Vanities is the first book I have ever had to admit defeat to. It’s sat next to the side of our bed, driving Leah nuts (“Are you ever going to finish it?”) for about three years now, and today I can say that no, I never will. Though I think I’ll let it sit next to the side of our bed for just a bit longer. Just for kicks.
–Jeff and Leah