December 10, 2007

20th anniversary of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities"

From the New York Times:

No Longer the City of ‘Bonfire’ in Flames

By ANNE BARNARD

Twenty years ago, the acid-penned journalist Tom Wolfe unleashed his first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Skewering everyone from self-absorbed Wall Street millionaires to hucksterish street politicians, the sprawling satire painted a picture of a New York declining inexorably into racial conflict, crime and greed. …

The novel tapped, to electrifying effect, a vein of anxiety that defined 1980s New York. … To some New Yorkers, Mr. Wolfe’s satire was bitingly accurate, nailing both a racist criminal justice system and the politicians who played on white fear and minority anger for personal gain.

To others, it was a cynical endorsement of racial stereotypes that did not so much critique white paranoia as cater to it.

Barnard at least admits that Bonfire of the Vanities didn't so much "reflect" as "predict" most of the events it now appears to have been based on:

From the moment it was published in November 1987, new episodes in the drama of the metropolis seemed to unfold like chapters in Mr. Wolfe’s story.

Four white youths from Howard Beach, Queens, were already on trial for beating a black man who fled to his death in traffic on the Belt Parkway.

That same month, a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who was found smeared with feces in a garbage bag, said she had been assaulted by white men with badges, sparking a prosecution that later collapsed when it was determined that she had fabricated the story.

Wall Street convulsed as its stars were investigated for white-collar crime, culminating in the 1990 securities fraud conviction of Michael R. Milken, the “junk bond king.”

In the 1990s, America's most distinguished jurist-intellectual, Richard A. Posner, admitted in his book Overcoming Law:

"When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just didn't strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say about the law or any other institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system… American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view."

Of course, the NYT's article doesn't remember to mention the NYT's long campaign last year to frame the Duke Lacrosse team, even though they were more innocent than Sherman McCoy -- headlines ripped from the story of Bonfire.

Barnard goes on

Mr. Wolfe’s real-life characters remain deeply divided, like their fellow New Yorkers, over what changed their city.

Mr. Hayes — using some of the eyebrow-raising ethnic language of his “Bonfire” character, Tommy Killian — gave credit to “the war on crime in New York City, which was basically won by white Catholic men from the boroughs.”

Minorities in the courts “got treated like dogs, and if you were a legitimate guy in a poor neighborhood you had no shot at all,” Mr. Hayes said. But in his view, New York crippled itself by blaming “society” for crime until Rudolph W. Giuliani came into office in 1994.

Wolfe himself says in an accompanying series of interviews with the models for various characters such as Al Sharpton ("Rev. Bacon"):

New York’s demographics were already shifting shortly after he finished the book, he noted.

"I first noticed this when “Bonfire” was being filmed [in 1990]. There was a slightly outrageous scene —night on the street in the Bronx. Two cars are on fire — I mean, come on — on this block . Everyone on the block is a black drug dealer, black drug taker, black wino, black pimp, black hustler — it really was an outrageous caricature. There’s a big Hollywood movie being made at night — lights, stars. The whole neighborhood turned out, they’re watching this and saying — what’s this thing all about? Because they’re all Thais and Cambodians and Vietnamese."

The long financial boom that began in August 1982 simply made the city too expensive for a lot of marginal characters. That's why the crime rate has fallen less than the national average in a lot of nearby cities that they moved to.

By the way, this reminds me of what a remarkably bad job of casting Brian De Palma and company did in the 1990 movie adaptation. The whole project was pretty hopeless from the get-go. The problem is that the central character, Sherman McCoy, is a stuffed shirt bore, but the minor characters, such as Killian, his uber-Irish defense attorney, are wonderful. A 2-hour movie that concentrates on Sherman was bound for trouble from the beginning.

But the casting didn't have to be so catastrophic. William Hurt, who was a big star at the time (before his drinking became a problem), was the obvious choice for Sherman, with Steve Martin a more daring selection. but instead they picked Tom Hanks, then still in his boyish era, and changed Sherman from an old money WASP to a young yuppie, which threw off the rest of the film. Of course, casting Bruce Willis as the villain, the poisonous British journalist Peter Fallow (based on Anthony Haden-Guest, Christopher Guest's illegitimate brother) was insane. Fallow had to be rewritten into a hero! There was no time left for great characters like Kramer, the assistant DA, and Killian, so little known actors were given their role. Morgan Freeman is in the movie, and he would have made a terrific Rev. Bacon (Al Sharpton), but instead he was cast as the fierce Jewish judge, but then the character couldn't be Jewish or fierce, but had to be black and numinous. Oh, man, what a catastrophe ...

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

17 comments:

Udolpho said...

The book about Bonfire (the movie) was more illuminating than the movie itself. DePalma peaked with Carrie.

Roger Thatchery said...

Really? Posner is America's most distinguished jurist-intellectual? According to whom? Other red diaper babies? Mr Sailer, I will argue that your perception of Posner is another product of the media echo chamber.

Certain lawyers have assaulted the Second Amendment for 100 years on the basis that the phrase "the people" is plural. Yet the same phrase "the people" is understood as singular everywhere else in the Bill of Rights, especially in the First Amendment. Can we say that this is the height of intellectual consistency?

The Fourth Amendment states plainly "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated" and yet this man Posner spends his career opposing the legal concept of a right to privacy.

Gee, for some reason I don't believe it would have helped one bit for the Founders to declare outright that "the people have the Right to Privacy" in the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Certain lawyers would surely work for decades to construct a path around that statement.

And as soon as I saw the name Posner I knew that a tribal reference was sure to follow:

"(the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka)"

Who is "we" Mr Posner? Your fellow Americans? Your fellow Westerners? Please. The gentiles have never given a damn about Kafka. Franz Kafka is another genius whose obscurity has been delayed by ethnic cheerleading.

And as regarding the judge switched to black judge for Hollywood's sake, well, that's a lot like the battlefield lawyer in James Jones' Thin Red Line being switched to Greek for the film version, isn't it? And a zillion other instances, of course.

The culture must be policed after all. And here's the kicker: If, as Commissar, you do a really thorough job of cultural police work, then even fringe element blog owners will find themselves falling in line without even realizing it!

Martin said...

Sherman - Ed Harris

Fallow - John Hurt

The judge - Alan Arkin

Steve Sailer said...

Alan Arkin, yes, definitely.

Jimbo said...

I'm trying to remember - was Hugh Grant around at that time? He would have made a brilliant Fallow...

Anonymous said...

I imagined Fallow as looking a lot like Christopher Hitchens.

Ron Guhname said...

From Wikipedia:

"Walter Matthau was initially offered the role of the judge, but demanded a fee of US$1 million. The producers balked at meeting his price and signed Alan Arkin instead for a modest $150,000. Arkin was replaced by Morgan Freeman when the studio decided to change the judge's ethnicity from Jewish to African-American in order to moderate criticism of the film's racial politics, and dialogue was added to have the judge give the final denouncement towards the manipulative actions of the main characters. Lastly, F. Murray Abraham, who has a significant part in the film, chose to not be credited over a contract dispute."

Jim O'Sullivan said...

DePalma is awful. The most overrated ever. All of his work stinks. Even though hes's usually trying to do nothing more complicated than imitate great filmmakers.

This one finally let everybody realize how bad he is. I mean, how could you take a great book like that and turn it into the biggest turkey since Heaven's Gate? Oh, that's how!!

Anonymous said...

McCoy's transition from the nailbiting, carved freize Sherman at the pinnacle of a vain society to the masculine, at ease, "now I dress for jail" Sherman, a better and happier man, at the bottom suggests a kind of final, encompassing, blanket barb directed at all of Wolfe's targets in Bonfire and just about everyone else. Presenting Sherman as a bit ridiculous at the end and compressing his post-transformation period into just a few pages creates a kind of vanishing effect for this message, however, into the sea of the rest of the book (the "dress for jail" remark, for example, maybe the most significant defining moment for the better Sherman, only comes in the faux-NYT article amid a flurry of other concluding details). The conclusion adds an incendiary, Dostoevskian kick to the novel (which follows the basic structure of Crime and Punishment) in Sherman's brief quasi-punishment phase, with Wolfe as a mocking Savonarola, who having created a pile of satired vanities, strikes a match at the end to light the fire.

Martin said...

Alan Arkin would have been good in the role of the judge. Or perhaps Vincent Gardenia.

Sherman McCoy: Tom Cruise (if he had been older then)

ADA Kramer: Ron Silver

Peter Fallow: Gary Oldman

It's a shame that the studio decided to take out most of the racial politics, as that was about half the story.

Anonymous said...

How many other examples of "great book-terrible movie" can rival Bonfire?

I can't think of any off the top of my head -- but I predict that the Angelina Jolie version of Atlas Shrugged will make the list, if it ever gets made!

Svigor said...

Oh I dunno, I really dig Scarface. Not every day you create the ultimate scumbag immigrant epic poem and shoot the numinious immigrant myth full of holes.

Svigor said...

How many other examples of "great book-terrible movie" can rival Bonfire?

The Stand was pretty good/horrible.

ben tillman said...

My one year in Manhattan coincided with the publication of this book. It really was true to life. I agree completely, Steve -- great book, terrible movie. Hanks was *not* Sherman McCoy material.

Fred said...

I haven't seen the film version of Atonement yet (read the book when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize), but judging by the reviews it might be a rare example of a great movie from a great book.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Duke Lacrosse mess has strong echoes from Wolfe's latest book, "I Am Charlotte Simons." That book was partly based on his visits to Duke.

David Brooks remarked that all scandals appear twice, first in a Tom Wolfe story, then in real life.

Wolfe is currently working on a book based in Miami, concerning immigration. Just up your alley.

Anonymous said...

The 2007 "Tom Wolfe Award for Wrestling the Beast and Bringing the Lurid Carnival of American Life to Heel" Goes to...

New York Magazine's "New York Look Book", 2007.