Tom Wolfes Novel and Its Reception as a Significant Historical Event
September 1988By John Lukacs
John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He has written for The New Yorker, Harpers, and other periodicals. Among his many books, his most important one is Historical Consciousness.
Tom Wolfes novel is a historical event. This statement requires explanation. A historical event is not necessarily an important event, meaning something with an ascertainably lasting impact. There are historical events that are significant rather than important (like a small crack on a large smooth surface). Tom Wolfes novel may not be important; but it is more precisely: its writing, publication, and reception are significant. My purpose in this article is to draw attention to those significances on four levels: the authors style of writing, his errors, his ideology, and, finally, his books reception.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is 659 big pages long. Its plot describes the pride, followed by the fall, of a young Old-American-Rich stockbroker, undone by vicious and dishonest practices of criminal law and publicity in New York in the 1980s.
We cannot but be sympathetic to the protagonist, who does not deserve the consequences of his comeuppance. These consequences are, in part, the accidental confections of a despicable English journalist (in the middle of the story), and, from the beginning to the end, the result of the demagoguery of blacks and manipulation by Jews, who, in Wolfes view, run most of New York in the 1980s.
Tom Wolfe is a conservative nationalist and a stylistic modernist. There is nothing wrong or even inconsistent in being a conservative nationalist and an innovator, not even in being an innovator of style. There are ample causes in this increasingly absurd world of ours for anti-progressive black humor. Think of Pound or Céline. But a closer examination of Wolfes style will reveal an inconsistency or, rather, the superficial quality of its seemingly radical modernity. Wolfes device is that of the staccato sentence (staccato = broken), in this book punctuated by 2,343 exclamation points. Céline wrote in much the same style; but while he could sustain it, Wolfe cannot. This is evident the fact that in the most serious pages of Wolfes New novel his New Style is entirely absent. There the author is still very voluble, but the staccato rhythm of his frantic-frenetic prose slows down. Exclamation points disappear. Of course every writer is free to change his style in mid-stream. But here one senses that not only the vitality but the very essence of Wolfes imagination is wanting. The evidence of this is how in these more thoughtful portions of his book he falls back on repetition. A sad, sad torpor set in. Five lines later: It was all so sad and heavy, heavy, heavy. This kind of repetition would be, I think, red-penciled in any decent Freshman English Composition class.
You have two options:
- Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
- Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.
If you're already a subscriber log-in here.