Tom Wolfe wasn’t for everyone. The vanilla bespoke suits, the manic, high-wire prose, the love affair with the exclamation mark — they were turn-ons or turn-offs and you knew which camp you fell into by the end of paragraph one.
The vaunted journalist and novelist, who died Monday at 88, will be remembered for books and essays that together captured the cultural sweep of the middle and latter parts of the 20th century. As dogged a chronicler of the moment as he was, at times, a pretentious spectacle, Wolfe embodied the largeness of the city (New York) and country (America) he bellowed to us about in sentences that could only belong to him.
Wolfe wrote so much, and about so much. But if there were ever a Wolfe book that could inform us about this peculiar time — the funhouse mirror that is the United State of America in the year 2018 — it was one he wrote over 30 years ago, in the same time that still wholly devours Donald Trump’s imagination.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a novel no one but Wolfe could craft. Panoramic, exhaustively-researched, and richly-plotted, it landed in bookstores in 1987, the same year as Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
Each book is a talisman in its own way, a means to decode an era and the psyche of a certain type of person: fabulously rich, a believer in wealth for its own sake, money as the only measure of self-worth. Trump’s rise to prominence occurred in 1980’s New York, where he was a real estate developer and gossip pages staple.
What’s striking now, revisiting The Bonfire of the Vanities as Trump stomps around the Oval Office, is how Wolfe renders a world that remains the president’s chief reference point to reality. It’s difficult to overstate just how much Trump was influenced by the kind of culture Wolfe documented and skewered, and how this era of New York still looms large in his brain — and therefore impacts the rest of us stuck with him.
The Bonfire of the Vanities follows Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street millionaire with a Trumpian ego, as he battles to make even more money. Dubbing himself a “Master of the Universe,” Sherman believes his net worth makes him untouchable. It is only on a late night run with his mistress in the burnt-out Bronx (they are there by accident) that Sherman’s life takes a horrible and lasting turn.
When Sherman exists the car to clear trash cans blocking the road, he sees two black boys. Believing they are out to get him, he flees, and his mistress accidentally strikes and eventually kills one of the boys with Sherman’s car.
The hit-and-run is the catalyst for Wolfe’s tale. Soon, an ethically-challenged tabloid reporter is on the case and an ambitious, fame-seeking district attorney is straining to lock Sherman up. An equally press-hungry reverend, modeled off the Rev. Al Sharpton, seeks too to manipulate the accident to serve his own ends.
We witness decadent New York and decrepit New York, where in the span of a few miles the wealthiest white men in the world can flaunt their riches and the poorest of black and brown people struggle to stay alive. Like today, 1980’s New York was a grossly unequal kingdom, and it was the blight of that era — the charred remnants of the 60’s and 70’s, when cities lost their luster — that informs Trump’s view of urban America.
Trump still calls cities “crime-infested,” even though murder rates have hit a record low in New York. His celebrity touchstones are heroes of the 1980’s, like Don King, Sylvester Stallone, and Bobby Knight. He dines at Mar-a-Lago with a now obscure politician named Andrew Stein, who once ruled 80’s Manhattan as the borough president and, like Trump, dreamed of becoming president of the whole country.
In Wolfe’s novel, characters hunger on an elemental level for power and fame. They are Trump-like in their self-regard and obsession with how they will be perceived. Headlines are everything. The rest is collateral.
Wolfe understood this truth about the American project, and the foul emptiness at the core. Crave money and power for its own sake, and nothing else, and end up a corruptible louse like Sherman McCoy, rotting in a New York jail cell.
Or like Donald J. Trump, running the largest and most powerful country on Planet Earth.
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