Bonfire of the Vanities – 5/5 Stars
This novels begins with a press conference given by the mayor of New York. During the press conference, the mayor is constantly heckled by local Black activists, until he is booed off stage. This moment sets up to see various motifs and throughlines of this novel. From there, we’re introduced to our primary players, specifically three men of different backgrounds (although all white, educated, and at middle class): Sherman McCoy is a 40ish Wall street bonds salesman (bonds being government-backed securities which sounds perfectly legitimate and stable, but we learn that Sherman’s business, especially according to his wife is tied up almost exclusively with making fractions of dollars through the near constant trading and shuffling of bonds) who lives in an old school luxury apartment with his wife and daughter; Larry Kramer (yeah it’s distracting to have a character with the same name as someone who was hugely famous at the time and known to Tom Wolfe, but otherwise they’re not very similar) a district attorney a little younger than Sherman who lives in a three room apartment with his wife, baby, and live-in British nanny; and Peter Fallow, a British tabloid reporter who has recently taken a job in New York after some accidental success in London (think Piers Morgan circa 1988). These are the primary figures we follow throughout the novel, but others come and go as well.
The novel circulates around a few important sectors of New York City, the local media, especially city newspapers; the justice system, focusing specifically on the Bronx, and Wall Street.
Our story is mostly focused on Sherman McCoy. After meeting up with a woman he’s having an affair with, they end up leaving the highway where he encounters an ad hoc road block (a set up for a robbery). His car stalls out, and when he’s dealing with he’s approached by two Black teenagers, whose actions he interprets (both rightly and wrongly) as threatening. By this time, he wasn’t driving at the time, and he jumps back in the car where the woman he’s been sleeping with peels out, hits one of the boys, and they go home. That seems to be the end of the story.
Except that, the boy who was hit, who was apparently not actually trying to rob them, ends up in the hospital with a concussion and goes into a coma where it seems quite possible he will die. This story gets picked up by a local Black political operator and community leader, where the injured boy becomes a cause celeb and a symbol of racism and corruption. The story is picked up by the British reporter; our DA becomes the prosecuting attorney, and Sherman becomes the subject of the investigation as the novel goes from there.
This novel is long, and while the plot is not particularly complex, the narration, the story, the characterization etc all are. There’s a lot of knowingness in the writing of the novel, that sometimes is uncomfortably dismissive (merging into racist and misogynist) as it explores the different actors and movers in the story. It mostly rings incredibly apt and true, so long as you can stomach some of that merging. A funny sidenote is that Sherman works for a firm called Pierce and Pierce, a fictional firm that later gets picked up by Bret Easton Elllis, for Patrick Bateman to work at.
From Bauhaus to Our House – 4/5 Stars
I don’t know if Tom Wolfe knows what he’s talking about here, but he definitely knows how to look like he knows what he’s talking about. In a way, this essay presents him as an iconoclast, but more so he’s an iconoclastclast when it comes down it. I will say that his credentials are mostly sound, with a PhD in American studies. So he’s not an expert necessarily in architecture, but he is an expert in American culture and the ways in which multiple fields interact wth it.
Like with his essay “The Painted Word” this one seeks to undercut the assumptions of an art movement. But as he readily explains at the beginning and at the end of the essay, you can live your life more or less ignoring art, but it’s impossible to ignore architectural choices. His target is the influence of Bauhaus and related forms of architectural, which I generally understand to mean functionalism in architecture based on anti-bourgeois theories and sentiments. In reality this tends to mean boxy structures that both exhibit function over form, but that also give off the specific impression of function over form. Tom Wolfe points out various examples where the presentation of the theory itself acts as a kind of formalism (or I guess what I am trying to say, where the elements of the theory are presented within the form in an almost ornamental way, which belies the idea that function is more important). So one example is with a building whose form involves concrete encased steel beams, but where additional beams are placed outside, not as additional support but as a demonstration of their presence within, so decoration.
One of the implications that seems to come from all this is that by establishing so firms this style in architecture, a lot of the examples of the various theories which are purportedly meant to espouse socialism end up getting co-opted by American capitalism, which often lacking a culture will just borrow it from another, and what was once a symbol of worker-first ideology ends up standing in for the opposite.
Radical Chic – 4/5 Stars
“Radical Chic” is a term coined by Wolfe in this essay, specifically referring to a kind of cozening up to political radicals as a kind of celebrity, and is especially critiqued here in the ways it often crosses not only ideological lines, but also class lines. Wolfe’s primary example involves the adopting of Black Panthers by mostly white Left-celebrities in the late 1960s, using a party attended by Leonard Bernstein as his example. I would suggest as well that certainly in 2022 there’s still plenty of this, as well as the form of it that involves something like the co-opting of movements by figures not expressly affected locally like with the tensions between local activists and nation organizational leaders, but that’s not quite what Wolfe is critiquing here. It’s the celebrity aspect of it and the kind of stolen valor and condescending element of it. He’s mostly using the Left here, but it’s pretty clear the Right has folded in much more radical elements into their umbrella in the US in the last ten years so there’s version of it certainly happening now. The difference is that on the Right in the US, it’s not so much “radicals” as “extremists”.
The Mau-mauing of the Flak Catchers – 4/5 Stars
This essay is directly connected to the previous essay on “Radical Chic” and describes a kind of PR dance played between political actors and activists on one side, and the professional spokespeople on the other. In “Radical Chic” Tom Wolfe is describing what he clearly sees as a kind of embarrassing display of privilege on the part of liberal to left people, but of means and money, hanging around with radicals who are fighting for real and important causes that specifically affect them. For him, the embarrassment is based on the idea that there’s actual empathy and compassion being displayed or whether is just that borrowed valor aspect. He also mentions William F Buckley’s likely take as something like white guilt and false self-flagellation for performance.
In “Mau-mauing” Tom Wolfe is describing a more active and almost professional relationship, still performative, but different. “Mau-mauing” is his term for the direct confrontation of political activists, a kind of airing of grievances that goes beyond protest, and is taken from the Kenyan separatist group to began to fight against British colonial rule in the late 1940s. It’s a tongue in cheek term (and obviously deeply problematic), but it’s part of a performance, according to Wolfe, a way of specifically logging protest. What makes it a performance, or like a dance, is that there’s a professional “flak catcher” on the in-power side, whose job it is to “hear” grievances and go from there. It’s a crude term, but he’s definitely right about seeing something happening and trying to give description to it. Think about the ways in corporate PR teams showingly interact with political activists. And activists here clearly is referring to political machine groups or professional advocates, not any kind of grassroots groups.