I can’t say I didn’t know what I was in for when I lugged Bonfire of the Vanities home from the library. I’m not just talking in terms of plot–it’s pretty common knowledge, I think, that the book revolves around a young, poor black man being hit by a car driven by a wealthy white couple–but also regarding the style. I knew that Wolfe would be there, in his little white suit, dancing through the text and presenting each word, ellipses and exclamation point to the reader on the tip of his shiny little cane.
But did I know how exhausting that would be in a work of this length?
What I’ve read and enjoyed of Wolfe before has been shorter–most notably the article he did on Hugh Heffner, which was written before everyone knew who Heffner was. There, his style enhanced the subject–ostentatious living, ostentatious writing. Also, the subject matched the writer in flamboyance. It was as easy to see Heff in the article’s flourishes as Wolfe.
But, when reading about a bedraggled lawyer in the Bronx or a grieving mother visiting her pastor in Harlem or a guilt-stricken Park Ave lion, it is hard to see those characters through all the…and the! and of course! (…!) …! It was impossible to care about any of the characters–to love or abhor them–because Wolfe was there doing his little dance the whole time, blocking the path between them and the reader.
So, although I rarely do this, I stopped reading in the middle. I kept the book around for about six weeks after I should have brought it back to the library out of guilt for dropping it, but rather than pick it back up, I piled magazines on top of it. If it hadn’t been too heavy to carry on the subway with me, or to take on the plane to the UK, maybe I would have finished it. Reading about race, class, neighborhoods, real estate, etc in 1980s New York was interesting, for sure, as much for what hasn’t changed as for what has. But, I couldn’t help thinking of some of the students I’ve taught from the South Bronx, future young black men I’m not fond of regarding as symbols. Is it fair for the characters to have thought of the victim of a hit-and-run this way? Of course, necessary, even. But for Wolfe? Nope. When the characters are caricatures, their humanity besides the point for two hundred pages, it is truly hard to care what happens to them in the final four hundred.
I wish I could bill my overdue fine to Wolfe.