In his memorable introduction to The New Journalism, a 1973 collection of classic magazine pieces, Tom Wolfe declared that modern American fiction was dead. The novel had lost touch with its roots, he wrote, with the “joys of detailed realism and its strange powers.” Wolfe thought the new king of letters was journalism, which could provide the texture and insight of Dickens or Dostoevsky with the added benefit of being true.

For young journalists, this was intoxicating stuff. Why feel guilty about that abandoned novel in the desk drawer? The future was in reporting. And reporting was suddenly more than just relevant or fun. While Woodward and Bernstein were busy proving that journalism could bring down the government, Wolfe showed how it could change writing and enrich the culture. The idea of applying the techniques of fiction to journalism, if not original to Wolfe, nonetheless kicked off a golden age in American journalism. Even his worst imitators could not dim the importance of what he had done.

Then, after the enormous success of The Right Stuff, Wolfe changed his mind. He embarked on a novel, which first was serialized in Rolling Stone. The original installments, often written under extreme deadline pressure, were engaging but unsatisfying. When the novel appeared, it was clear why. Wolfe’s original protagonist was a famous Upper East Side novelist; now he was a bond trader on Wall Street. The substitution was essential to the book’s success.

For something had changed in New York. Since the 1920s, the reigning cultural con men—the ones who cut the widest swath in the life of the city, whatever their real talent—had been in the arts. Wall Street was just a place where you made a living. But by the mid-1980s, this was no longer true. The biggest con artists were no longer artists.

That meant that satirizing bloated literary or artistic figures was suddenly not much of a public service. In the classic “W” formulation, Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein were Out; Saul Steinberg (the financier, not The New Yorker cartoonist) and John Gutfreund (the chief of Salomon Bros.) were In. And it wasn’t just that a few corporate raiders found their names in the papers all the time. The status was trickling down. Before long, bond traders were not only making a fortune, they were actually getting laid more than sculptors from the Village, a remarkable social transformation.

There’s little need to reprise the uproarious and exhaustively reviewed highlights of this book “Lemon Tarts” (the gorgeous young blonds on the arms of septuagenarian billionaires) and “social X rays” (Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner types; too rich and too thin) may soon enter the language along with “radical chic,” “The Me Decade” and Wolfe’s other nonfiction contributions. The Bavardage dinner party is as revealing as any cooked up by Proust. The speakerphone conference call with Gene Lopwitz (supposedly based on Gutfreund) should shame that instrument of communication out of existence. Peter Fallow, Wolfe’s freeloading British tabloid journalist, has a friend who writes Marxist diatribes while supporting himself with fluffery in House and Garden (Alexander Cockburn call home). From now on, any husband planning to phone his mistress will make sure not to leave the house and absent-mindedly call his own number, as Sherman McCoy did.

The list of great moments could go on for as long as a New York party, and often has. This is one of those rare trendy books that people do not just pretend to read.

The wonderful thing is that by succeeding, Wolfe may help American fiction in much the same way he helped American nonfiction. He has mustered one of the first expeditionary forces aimed at liberating the novel from its postmodern oppressor, which sometimes goes by the name of minimalism. Whatever its slender attributes, the minimalist fashion has clearly grown out of hand in recent years. It has almost gotten to the point where if something actually happened in a novel, beyond a walk on the beach or a meaningful sigh, then by definition it had to be second-rate “genre” fiction—a thriller, mystery, or spoof.

Many of Wolfe’s critics wrongly assail it along these lines: funny and smart but not “real” literature, whatever that means. The characters aren’t deep enough, they say; they’re too broad and cartoonish, too full of curlicues that signify nothing. If that has a familiar ring, it’s because it resonates of Wolfe’s old quarrel with The New Yorker, home of the Nothing Happens school of short story writing, which extends back to his famous early-1960s attack on William Shawn in the old New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine. The struggle later surfaced over another medium: architecture. The point of From Bauhaus to Our House was that minimalism offended Wolfe in any form. He sees spare, fine lines as signs of boredom more often than beauty. Glass boxes stink. Beaux arts is beautiful.

Obviously there are limits to the importance of external design. Wolfe overdoes descriptions of clothes and furniture: just because he dresses to make a statement doesn’t mean that everybody does. Still, there is much that is right about his emphasis on details. Novels are in large part about observation, and this is the most fully reported work of fiction in years. It used to be that much great American literature was written by former reporters like Stephen Crane or Ernest Hemingway; now it’s written by graduates of creative writing workshops. The difference shows here, in the legwork. It is the richness of detail that moves Wolfe’s characters beyond stereotypes and makes them into people that we can all recognize. Satirized. Larger than life. But real.

Through the Fools’ Eyes

This alone would make Bonfire significant. But Wolfe has the advantage of something else— timing. Just one step ahead of the conventional wisdom, he made Wall Street the villain. Wolfe knew that what he called “plutography”—graphic depiction of the glorious lives of the rich and famous—couldn’t last, and he devoted himself to hastening its demise. Along with Spy magazine, founded in 1986, he rode the wave perfectly. For Wolfe and for Spy, the stock market crash came not as a shock but as a validation. Everyone else in New York is now scrambling to catch up. Suddenly New York magazine has stopped puffing the John Gutfreunds of the world and started trashing them, which is the way it should have been in the first place. It’s easier now, when they’re down. Wolfe did it when they were up; he realized that this worshipping of rich shit-heads had gone too far.

“Masters of the Universe” is a wonderful way of summarizing how terrific these guys thought they were. And Sherman, who coins the phrase, is a sympathetic character because he removes that little gnawing idea that some readers have about these young millionaire investment bankers and traders—the idea, buried inside too many of us, that their fabulous success actually proves that they are smarter than everyone else. Sherman is such a pathetic guy that we know, just know, that the men he symbolizes are nothing much either. And that’s healthy. The fact that the crash made it obvious—and thus created an instantly receptive audience for Wolfe’s book—is what one might call earned good fortune.

Of course, besides being a novel of manners, Bonfire is a novel of race and class. That’s what makes it a political book. Race and class are frequently avoided by modern minimalist novelists, who cannot imagine that such concerns might be relevant to the identity crises of their characters. Wolfe puts these issues at the center of the novel. And the subtleties are right. There’s a terrific scene, for instance, where Lawrence Kramer, the young lawyer, feels inferior to a haughty British nanny he’s hired until she makes a racist comment, which immediately allows him to feel superior again. That’s because spoken racism is gauche in liberal, professional Manhattan. Racists must observe the proper etiquette, which is to pretend that they are not.

Wolfe has long made a sub-speciality of pushing these buttons on race and class. “Radical Chic” (where he made fun of Leonard Bernstein’s 1969 party for the Black Panthers) and “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” (a description of the way black poverty activists intimidated white bureaucrats) seemed to white liberals to confirm that the Virginia-born author was a racist.

Bonfire fuels the flames of that old fight, and for reasons that may not be immediately apparent. First, there’s the matter of literary device. Including Sherman, Wolfe goes inside the heads of about half a dozen characters. None of these people are portrayed in an especially flattering light and most look like fools. But at least the rest of the world is seen through their eyes for a few pages. Those eyes are never black. Wolfe will walk in Sherman’s shoes or Fallow’s, but not in those of Rev. Bacon (the media-manipulating, rabble-rousing Harlem minister) or Henry Lamb (the teenager Sherman and his mistress run over in their car). In fact, besides Lamb and his mother, blacks in the novel are either corrupt or simply barbarians ready to storm the gates of civilization. Wolfe is correct that this is a reflection of how white Manhattan views Harlem and the Bronx. But how about the way Harlem and the Bronx view white Manhattan? Other than targeting rich whites for money and manipulation—Rev. Bacon’s approach—the black view gets lost. Blacks are either a mob or exotic urban fauna. They are never seen as individuals.

Of course, it could be argued that the point-of-view question is irrelevant because no one in the book comes out looking good. This is satire, and satire is often set in a world without heroes. Besides, there’s an original and bracing quality to Wolfe’s nihilism. It’s just plain funnier to dump on everyone—with an extra kick in the teeth to the people who are rich and powerful enough to take it. That is Spy‘s secret, too.

Real Courage

But the rough equality achieved by trashing everyone and everything carries a steep price. This is a novel about New York that doesn’t capture the joy that the city brings to so many people— it doesn’t explain why New Yorkers (including Wolfe himself) put up with all the lunacy instead of moving away. In that sense, it is not the complete book on the culture of the city. The explanation of why people want to live there may be obvious to New Yorkers—so obvious, apparently, that it never needs to be said. (Shelly the juror, for instance, never has to say why she wants Kramer’s help in getting an apartment in Manhattan). At the same time, the rest of the country thinks it’s just as obvious that anyone who actually lives there is crazy. Wolfe never reconciles the two. He shares the unspoken assumption of his fellow New Yorkers but assumes the essential critique of non-New Yorkers.

More important, as many critics have pointed out, Wolfe suggests a hopelessness about New York’s problems of race and class, as if those chasms really are unbridgeable—not even worth trying to bridge. Dickens always had at least one redeeming character—say, Pip in Great Expectations—who carried within him the seeds of hope. Wolfe has no one.

Or practically no one. There is Martin, the detective who, to Kramer’s horror, tells the tough black guy to move his car. And Kovitsky, the Bronx judge assigned to Sherman’s case who stands up to the thugs populating the courtroom. Sherman himself is even redeemed a bit at the end of the novel when, stripped of his phony dignity, he goes to court without fear. Why does Wolfe like these men? For the same reason he admired Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. The value that Wolfe admires above all others is physical courage, as he readily admits.

In a recent interview with Insight, the newsmagazine of The Washington Times, Wolfe said: “I think of Huckleberry Finn. There’s a chapter on Col. Sherwood, who has saved somebody from lynching. A mob approaches his house, but he comes out to the front, and it’s not a mob anymore. I think of that type of figure, of what it means to physically confront something very bad in the name of something worthwhile. That is always admired.”

In the name of something worthwhile. But what? A closer reading of Huckleberry Finn suggests that Col. Sherburn, not Sherwood, was saving not some poor innocent, but himself, a coldblooded murderer. That’s the unresolved issue in The Bonfire of the Vanities. It sometimes seems that Wolfe believes the notion of physical courage is itself worthwhile. This, at bottom, is what has always so infuriated liberals about him. “Radical Chic” and “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” were not just charges of paternal racism, not just gibes at naive liberalism—they were essays that said to whites: you are appeasers. And why were they appeasing blacks? Because they were scared of them. This was the subtext. Wolfe was affronting the manhood of these white liberals, many of whom wouldn’t go to Vietnam, and that hurt.

For Wolfe, making that point—twisting the knife with relish—was worthwhile. If you’re a bleeding heart, you may end up hurt, bleeding real blood! Or it could be that the positive value he has been upholding all these years is simply order. That would explain the Col. “Sherwood” reference. The white lynch mobs of the 19th century have become the black lynch mobs of the 20th, a peculiar and disturbing implication on Wolfe’s part. Or maybe the “worthwhile” thing to do is simply play the old New York game, which Spy is now playing so well: figure out who’s Out a step ahead of everyone else—for instance, anticipating that Gutfreund would be Out—then reap the praise. That is the more cynical explanation of Wolfe’s prescience in writing this book. Then again, cynicism is now In, as Spy‘s success tells us.

Whatever the explanation, The Bonfire of the Vanities is clearly missing some critical sense of commitment. It’s not enough, in literature, simply to stand up for bravery. The question should always be: Courage for what? Moral courage? The courage of convictions? The courage required for love? In attacking the liberal dogma of the 1960s, Wolfe showed the social and journalistic equivalent of physical bravery. Another variation would be the Wall Street courage to bet the house on a hunch, as Sherman might do. But committing capital—or New York social suicide—is not the same as committing yourself. For years, Wolfe has had the courage to say what he is against, while avoiding the responsibility to say what he is for. Doing so might put him at risk of looking foolish. It might open him up to the ridicule of some new Tom Wolfe.

But suggesting that Wolfe (not to mention Spy) need some “commitment” is not an argument for ruining them. Cervantes and Shakespeare proved that humor and commitment can coexist; they loved the men they made fun of.

With similar empathy, Wolfe’s powers of observation could have been harnessed to something more noble than tweaking New York. If he had mustered the courage to stand up for something he believed in, the novel would have been richer—infinitely richer than Lopwitz—and the world in which it is set a less forsaken place.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.