Review – The Bonfire Of The Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe, published 1987

During a these days rare dinner with friends our conversation turned to the time men spend away from home and their families, working their jobs. In this era it has become fashionable for women to work jobs and make money as men do, but save for a few standouts who are either childless outliers or work from pure necessity due to a failed relationship and mounting obligations, women do not “work as men do.” They don’t spend as much time at it and they certainly are not existentially defined by it. You may fall on either side of this line in your suppositions and beliefs, but where I fall is that this is the nature of man and woman.

In this role of provider, of striver, it becomes difficult if not impossible for a man to dissociate himself from his work such that he can stand independently apart from it without falling down on top of himself. He can always find a way to justify spending just a little bit more time at the office, or networking on the golf course, or catching up on emails after hours and so on, rather than reading to his kids or helping with household chores or kissing his wife on the forehead. Not because he’s trying to shirk his “duties” — far from it, for a man’s duty is to work! — but because in so prioritizing his time he is more fully expressing and embodying himself and defining who he is through his productive ambition.

There are two terrifying prospects then for men– to have no productive work to throw oneself into, or worse, to have work that doesn’t matter, to the man, to his family and to the world.

“Bonfire” is a story of the undoing of many characters. Great and small, main characters and side acts alike, each person is ultimately undone in this story in various dreadful ways, like the cuckolded Arthur Ruskin who succumbs in a plate of his fancy food at a French-dining scene. But the most terrible undoing of all, at least as far as a man is concerned, is the undoing of Sherman McCoy.

The major drama of the story follows McCoy in the criminal aftermath of his hit-and-run in the Bronx. But this drama serves only to distract the unobservant reader from the more existential moment when McCoy tries to explain to his six year-old daughter what he does for a living. In that moment, he learns that his work is inexplicable and meaningless.

Though touted by himself and others as a “Master of the Universe” at a major bond trading firm, Sherman McCoy comes to the understanding that he is at best a lowly salesman and at worst a janitor. He makes his money by trying to convince other people to buy and sell things and the residual value of these transactions, though large in absolute terms to an individual, are nonetheless like so many “golden crumbs” to be swept up from the table or floor of even more gluttonous organizations and actors.

Although seemingly talented, good at what he does and maybe even in a sense born to do it, it is essentially menial work and McCoy is replaceable, not strategic. He experiences this fact tangibly when, as his personal drama percolates, he witnesses the ways in which his former world goes on happily without him. This is the truly crushing blow for him, when he begins to have trouble sleeping and contemplates an existential way out of his misery.

Though cast as a social satire and an attack on financial hotshots and others of privilege, the book is perhaps better understood as a warning to men in general. That warning might be to anchor your work in your self and not to anchor your self in your work; as long as you are alive you will have your self, but you may not always have your work, at least in the way you’ve always understood it.

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Review – What Makes Sammy Run?

What Makes Sammy Run?

by Budd Schulberg, published 1941

What Makes Sammy Run? (WMSR) is a work of fiction and judging by the title, you’d think the book is about Sammy Glick, the eponymous antagonist. Certainly that is what many reviewers, readers and critics seem to focus on. But WMSR isn’t about Sammy– it’s about the people around him, who tolerate and even tacitly support him, who enable his antics in various ways and thereby lower themselves in the process. WMSR isn’t a study in lite social tyranny, as some think, but rather it is a study in the Stockholm Syndrome. The real villain in this novel is the narrator, the despicable Al Manheim.

It’s easy to be fooled. Sammy isn’t a “nice person” and he clearly isn’t a “happy person.” He’s a wildly imbalanced person with a humongous ambition and not much else of note. He isn’t necessarily handsome or well-spoken. He isn’t an intellectual. He certainly doesn’t have any charm, or empathy for others. It’s easy to dislike him and it’s easy to watch him tread over other people on his way up and make the mistake of thinking he’s the bad guy.

But the question we must always ask ourselves in a tale of moral depravity is, “Where’s the hero, and what is he up to?” Who is keeping this guy in check? Who is going to stop him. In WMSR, the answer is “There isn’t one.” So the people who bear the responsibility for Sammy’s reign are all those who could be the hero and stop him, but don’t, or worse, those who claim to find him distasteful but end up worshipping him.

The best example of worshipping the supposed bad guy in the book is the way Al Manheim falls in love with Kit, a woman who admits to a one-time sexual relationship with Sammy Glick because of her burning curiosity to know what it’d be like to have all of his ambition and energy inside of her. She’s supposed to be the strong, principled and competent femme of the novel yet she couldn’t resist her own base sexual craving for a man she knew was no good. And rather than keep her at arm’s distance, Manheim becomes a soppy wet romantic for her. This is what you call “selling out.”

Sammy’s rise to the top in Hollywood despite having no talent, no money, no experience and no real value to anyone for anything is supposed to serve as a condemnation of the industry and maybe tangentially of the voluntary, for-profit capitalist economy itself. We’re supposed to read WMSR and look around us at all the entitled pricks like him who are our bosses, our owners or are actively in the process of clawing their way to such heights and smirk or despise them. “You’re just another Sammy Glick!” But why then do people secretly admire and envy them and their achievement-less achievement?

The answer is that the Al Manheim’s of the world have no self-esteem. They don’t love themselves enough to say “This is wrong!” on the many occasions they have to say such things. They don’t admire themselves enough to ignore the nuisance Sammy’s, to resist their endless persistence, to insist in return that they go ply their filth somewhere, anywhere but here. Instead, they open the city gates, invite them in and grab them a footstool so they can be comfortable as they bark out their orders. Then, like Al, they drink or smoke or ingest their minds into oblivion when the pressure of thinking about what they’ve done gets too great.

In other words, they’re weak.

Sometimes, they’re so weak, like Al Manheim, that they become accomplices to the madness. Like Nick Carraway, they’re happy to stand silently on the sidelines and observe and oogle as long as they can have the feeling that they’re in on the big adventure, as horrible as they think it may be.

And like Jay Gatsby, the Sammy Glick’s all have a pitiable background. They come from a world without love and so they can’t imagine a world with it. They’re not human, choosing, conscious entities. That experience of life was stripped from them at birth when they entered their perceived loveless world. All they can do is march to their idiot tune and destroy a bit of the world along the way to their doom.

Only they wouldn’t get very far, if it weren’t for the Al Manheims and the Nick Carraways.

The answer to the question What Makes Sammy Run? is less interesting than you hope. It’s so simple, it’s almost stupid– he has no love. It’s also somewhat pathetic because it can’t be helped. Sammy is damaged goods and no amount of therapy or intervention can get him back. The great irony of the novel, of any Sammy Glick, is that someone, somewhere served as the Great Enabler by bringing them into the world and nurturing them long enough to develop their skewed sense of possibility. From there, they’re working on auto-pilot.

A far more interesting question is What Makes Al Go Along With It?, especially when He Says He Hates Him.

Or, something I was thinking about last week, What Makes Davey Crawl? “Davey” is a small business owner, responsible for a few dozen people, who has managed to slowly run into the ground over a period of decades what could be a valuable little enterprise. There are the Sammy’s out there, deterministically trying to skitter to the top without adding anything of value, and then there are the Davey’s just trying to hold on and desperately, desperately disinterested in doing any better.

Why? Why is Davey happy without his ambition (is he happy?) when Sammy is miserable (to himself and others) with his? Sammy wants to wrap his whole mouth around the hose so there isn’t any for anyone else, but Davey just doesn’t want to turn it on all the way when there could be plenty more.

The answer is probably similarly simple, stupid and hopeless to fix. We may just have to suffer these Sammys, these Daveys and these Als as best we can.