Monday, February 8, 2010

Fruit of the poisonous tree

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 421 - 659 (end)

I read over the weekend and didn't update about it, I must admit. I also already started the next book, but don't intend to discuss it until tomorrow's post. I am unashamed!

Wolfe does a strange thing with his characterization when Sherman gets arrested. Previous to this point, he's been pretty unlikeable, what with cheating on his wife and being stuck-up and semi-racist. But as soon as he gets arrested, he becomes this incredibly sympathetic character. Wolfe makes a point of standing him outside in the rain, subjecting him to near assault by the press, sticking him in a dirty cell with abusive criminals, and generally transforming him into a pathetic figure. It's an interesting turnaround, and I'm a little unsure what to make of it, frankly, but there you go.

Anyway, Sherman goes through the whole ordeal of being arrested and arraigned, and then gets released on bail and proceeds toward a trial. His life is pretty much a circus at this point, since the black community is calling for his blood and there are protesters constantly surrounding his Park Avenue apartment. His wife and daughter have left, of course, so he's pretty much just sitting about with his lawyer and his bodyguards, trying not to give in to suicidal tendencies. Maria is apparently off in Italy somewhere, avoiding the whole thing by sleeping with someone else entirely (meaning neither her husband nor her steady lover), and Sherman and his lawyer, Killian, spend a lot of time and effort trying to track her down to no great effect. Fallow takes Arthur Ruskin, Maria's sugar-daddy old husband, out to dinner to interview him on the subject of Maria, but the old tycoon dies of a heart attack before he can complete the interview. This prompts a funeral, of course, and Maria shows up so that she can get her proper due, being the bereaved and inheriting widow. Sherman tries, at the funeral and afterward, to get her to incriminate herself in conversation with him while he's wearing a wire, but he's unsuccessful.

Shortly thereafter, Sherman's indicted by a grand jury. There's a bail hearing the next day, but before that Killian discovers that Maria's landlord placed a voice-activated tape recorder in the apartment that Sherman and Maria used to use for don't actually know the word venue? Anyway, the point is that there's a recording of her admitting that she did the driving, but it's inadmissible unless one of the participants of the conversation made said recording. So, Killian and Sherman lie about it, of course, and convince the judge at the bail hearing to throw out the grand jury indictment. Kramer, the ADA, is livid, as is the black community, led on by Reverend Bacon, but nothing, it seems, comes of that lividity.

This, however, is where the story proper ends, and all we're given by way of resolution is a newspaper article published a year later. The article informs us that Sherman spends the year subsequent to the events of the book fighting (and losing) a civil suit brought by Henry Lamb's mother, generally fending off the press, and being hounded by litigators and protesters alike, that Kramer has been ruined by the discovery of his affair with Shelly Thomas, and that Peter Fallow won a Pulitzer for his coverage of Sherman's case. And that's the end.

Weirdly inconclusive, that ending. I was sort of annoyed at first, but upon consideration, I think it's fair to say that Wolfe is accomplishing his goal of illustrating the vicissitudes of New York existence, especially through the intersection of the high and low classes. There is no nice, neat outcome. There is no message to be taken away wrapped in a pretty moral. It's simply that there are a lot of problems, on the side of the high class and on the side of the low class, that combine to make a city that can be easily torn apart by even the most insignificant of conflicts. The judicial system is a nest of favoritism and pandering, and racism is not only prevalent, but, in fact, ubiquitous. Also, people cheat on their spouses too much.

It was an incisive novel, and I think it did something pretty new in literature, although less in terms of technique or storytelling and more in terms of addressing the problems of a new age. It was not unlike Fitzgerald in the way it tried hard to point out the problems with the modern leisure class, actually; it's just that Fitzgerald's modern is 1920 and Wolfe's modern is 1985. Is it worthy of the list? Hard to say. I'd call it a borderline yes, but I may, at some point, rescind that statement. I hope no one's recording this.

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