Volume > Issue > Tom Wolfe's Novel and Its Reception as a Significant Historical Event

Tom Wolfe’s Novel and Its Reception as a Significant Historical Event


By John Lukacs | September 1988
John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He has written for The New Yorker, Harp­er's, and other periodicals. Among his many books, his most important one is Historical Consciousness.

Tom Wolfe’s 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 Wolfe’s 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 author’s style of writing, his errors, his ideology, and, finally, his book’s 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 Wolfe’s 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 Wolfe’s style will reveal an inconsistency — or, rather, the superficial quality of its seemingly radical modernity. Wolfe’s 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 Wolfe’s “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 Wolfe’s 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.

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