Monday, February 1, 2010

The upward surge of mankind

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 3 - 107

Before I start talking about Tom Wolfe, I'm going to throw out a call for readership. If you know somebody who you think might be interested in this blog, send them a link, huh? Not because I'm vain and want to be read, but...well, mostly because I'm vain and want to be read. Ok, that's done.

So, Tom Wolfe, as it turns out, is definitely not the same person as Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, which, as you may remember, I read last year. I don't know why I was under that impression (Well, ok, aside from the fact that their names are almost exactly the same - that does count for something.), but it makes a lot more sense that they aren't the same person, what with Look Homeward, Angel having been published in 1929, and this book in 1987. It would have been impressive as hell if it had been the same guy, though.

Anyway. This book is significantly more modern, and so far seems to consist largely of a critique of the social structure and inflated economy of 1980s New York. It sort of reminds me of the movie Greed, only more artful and without Charlie Sheen. That may have been redundant. (Though if you'd like to imagine Charlie Sheen into one of the roles, I say go for it.) Our main character, though I think he's going to more of a villain than a protagonist, is Sherman McCoy, an investment banker who works on Wall Street and is deeply in debt for his Manhattan apartment, though, of course, he also makes an absurd amount of money that he spends unwisely on things like his $48,000 Mercedes. (It's not like he's getting calls from the collection agency, is the point, though he's also not fiscally responsible.) Sherman's married to Judy, but cheats on her with Maria, an uneducated and much poorer woman of whom he clearly gets to feel in control when he's with her. (He's got a whole inadequacy issue. Surprised?) Sherman and Judy have a young daughter, Campbell, who Sherman seems to actually like, though he doesn't want to spend time with her if he can possibly avoid it. So, we've got the McCoys' unhappy marriage and Sherman's affair laid out as a backdrop for the rest of the story, but before we get going, we need to get acquainted with a few other people.

One of the other main characters is Lawrence Kramer, an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, who went to Columbia law and is, rather nobly, serving the city of New York rather than a private firm. He and his wife, Rhoda, have recently had their first child, Joshua, and are living in the best apartment they can afford on Manhattan, which is, of course, a hellhole. (Because real estate in Manhattan is insane. Seriously. I don't mean to sound like a crazy cosmopolite here (Look, you just don't get to use that word very often. Let me have my fun.), but for real, guys. When I attended my one ill-starred semester at NYU, I lived in student housing on Manhattan, and it was ridiculous. For a bedroom in a shared two-bedroom apartment that consisted of the two aforementioned bedrooms, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen - no other living space of any kind - I paid $1400 a month. $1400. Christ. In. Heaven.)

We've also got a the mayor of New York, who's in hot water with the black community, and serves less as a character and more to introduce the idea of racial tension in the city. This is, we must remember, before Giuliani and the dramatic drop in crime rates, when parts of the city were virtual no-man's-lands. The worst areas were the largely minority neighborhoods, and the white officials of the city seemed ok with insulating themselves in the pockets of relative wealth and safety that comprised most of Manhattan. So, there was a lot of ill feeling among many groups, and we get a strong sense of that in this novel. There's racism across the board, really, but it could be broken down into categories, if you tried pretty hard: white against black and Hispanic, black against Jewish, Irish and Italian against Jewish, and Jewish against, well, everybody else. Point being, everybody hates each other. (And more than that, really, fears each other. Which is pretty much where this always comes from, isn't it?)

So. Now that the background is properly established, we get a day at Sherman's firm, during which he makes tons of money and feels like the king of the world. Afterward, he tells his wife he has to work late, and instead goes to pick his mistress, Maria, up from the airport and engage in some good old-fashioned adultery. (Because that's what you do when you feel good about yourself. Cheat on your wife. Christ. Note to self: good job marrying an ethical and upright man so you don't have to worry about this kind of thing.) Sherman and Maria, heading back to Manhattan in the Mercedes, take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx, pit of sin and criminal behavior (Sherman's impression, obviously), and start to panic. They end up trying to go up a disused on-ramp to get back to the highway, but there's some debris on the road that's in their way. Sherman gets out of the car to clear a path, and a black man and his son ask him if he needs any help. Sherman reads the statement as a veiled threat (and wow, is it not one) and throws some of the debris (a tire) at the man, after which there's a confused jumble of movement and shouting, and Maria ends up getting into the driver's seat, picking Sherman up in the car, and hitting one of the two men, probably the son, on her way back to the freeway. Both of them are scared, but also in strident denial of the events, and they congratulate each other on their mutual bravery, worry a little about the hit-and-run, and then vow to forget it and count it a lucky escape. Also, then they have sex. Of course.

Afterward, we cut back to Lawrence Kramer at the DA's office, and it's clear that he's about to get this case dumped in his lap. The young man who Sherman and Maria hit with the car has called the DA's office to make a complaint. And that's where we are.

I'm really enjoying it, regardless of the fact that at first I thought it was going to be mostly violence and swearing. I mean, you know, there is violence and swearing, but Wolfe uses it pretty convincingly. He succeeds in both creating an accurate picture of 1980s New York and in offering insightful social commentary about it. I'm impressed by how easily he gets you to slip into Sherman's way of thinking about race, but then throws it back in your face by giving you different views of racism through the eyes of other immigrant groups (Jewish, Italian, and Irish). One way or another, you'll get the message that everyone's been part of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, or the oppressed, and just because it's not your turn anymore doesn't mean you can pretend it's not important. Clearly, this is coming from my white perspective, but I think it'd work no matter what race you identify with, because he covers a lot of groups fairly equally. It's early; I could be wrong, but I think that's where we're going. Also, we're clearly going to get an investigation and trial narrative. I'm not much for legal drama, but when it's well written, it can be pretty engaging. So, regardless of the fact that this book's really long, I'm quite looking forward to the rest. I might even read it when I'm not working out. The audacity!

1 comment:

  1. Well. I have to go backward a little bit and say how glad I am that you liked the Kurt Vonnegut book. He has ben one of my all-time favorite authors for forever. I'd have been unhappy if you'd disliked his work. Now also let me say that I LOVED this book when I read it which was when it was "new". I'm glad that you are enjoying it as well. For you, and for the other readers of this blog, let me offer a warning. This book was made into a movie, which stars Tom Hanks. That would lead you to believe that the movie is probably pretty good, but it's not. In fact, it is awful. In asking for more readers I feel like you were also requesting more commentary so here it is.



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