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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