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New York City: A Burning Portrait of Urban America

Book review of: Tom Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Olivier Walther
Bibliographical reference

Tom Wolfe. 1987 (2010). The Bonfire of the Vanities. London: Vintage.

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Credits: © Jen Nelles 2008
  • 1  All page numbers refer to the 2010 edition.

1The Bonfire of the Vanities tells the story of an encounter that should never have happened, between a Wall Street golden boy, Sherman McCoy, and two young black men from the South Bronx, on a motorway access road. McCoy will be accused of having accidentally hit one of his two attackers with his Mercedes coupé, and will end up losing his job, his friends, and everything he owns. “I’m already dead, or the Sherman McCoy of the McCoy family and Yale and Park Avenue and Wall Street is dead” (5761) as he puts it at the end of his trial, once his pride and ostentation have been consumed in the bonfire lit by Tom Wolfe.

2Three main characters blow on the embers: Larry Kramer, one of the two hundred and forty assistant district attorneys who are locked up in the fortress of Justice in the Bronx; the Reverend Reginald Bacon, a black ambassador for Harlem, who uses the accident caused by McCoy to “balance the interracial pressure” which is developing between various urban communities; and Peter Fallow, a British journalist who feeds on the rotting flesh of those who are thrown to the lions of the reading public.

3By thus brutally bringing into contact two social environments which usually have nothing to do with each other due to the socio-spatial segregation in New York, Tom Wolfe has written a fiercely contemporary novel. Even though The Bonfire of the Vanities was originally published almost 25 years ago, there are two main reasons why (re)reading it remains essential today.

4The first reason one should (re)read this novel, three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, is that it refers to the very strange world of globalised finance. McCoy, Wolfe’s thirty-year-old hero, works at Pierce & Pierce, an investment bank whose Ivy League-educated employees see themselves as “Masters of the Universe”. Wolfe perfectly captures the trends which dominated the triumphant, deregulated 1980s on the financial markets, in particular the disconnection between finance and the real economy, and the increasing complexity of financial products. McCoy, even though he studied at the Wharton School of Business, is incapable of explaining to his own daughter what his job actually involves.

5The novel was published a few weeks before the 1987 Wall Street crash, which was marked by a spectacular fall of the Dow Jones after five years of continuous growth, a sign that Wolfe, as well as being an author who is extraordinarily meticulous in terms of his research, also has a talent for anticipating things to come. At the time, this crash, which was caused by spectacular growth in the derivatives market, a lack of liquidity, trade deficits, programme trading, and an increase in long-term interest rates, caused the redundancy of thousands of Wall Streeters and required the intervention of the Federal Reserve. A reader today will have no trouble linking this to the events which have occurred in New York as well as in other international financial centres since 2007.

6New York is in fact the second reason why people should reread this novel. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a wonderful novel in terms of its urban geography, and takes the city as its subject. In the preface to the 2010 edition, Wolfe says of his work that it is the great New York novel which he was worried someone else might write before him.

7By setting his novel at the end of the 1980s, Wolfe has pinpointed a very unique moment in American economic history. At this time, Keynesian policies seeking to redistribute economic activity from the centres to the peripheries were already long gone. Liberal policies, which in contrast encourage competition between spaces and the concentration of service activities in metropolitan areas, have taken their place. While salaries were previously considered as an essential factor in national demand, opening markets up on a global scale has led to a paradigm shift: from now on, salaries are a cost which must be reduced to face up to the competition coming from the rest of the world. Corporations, supported by liberal governments, therefore seek out flexibility, openness on international markets, question the barriers formed by tariffs and customs duties, and promote the expansion of knowledge-intensive services. Some cities like New York emerged as global cities (Warf 2000).

8Wolfe thus describes a city that is in the middle of a transition: in 1975, New York had undergone a virtual bankruptcy that was characterised by a 13 billion dollar debt, the paralysis of public services and a decrease in real estate value (Smith and DeFilippis 1999). Ten years later, new policies aimed at making the city’s finances healthier by promoting partnerships between public services and private investors at the expense of public spending attracted investors. This pro-growth policy, led by mayor Edward Koch, is however far from having yet led to such a geographically extensive gentrification of the central areas as we have today. The Big Apple was then segregated into a mosaic of areas dominated by extreme wealth or the most abject poverty and through which ran a still dirty and dangerous subway.

9Wolfe undertakes to highlight the contrasts between these urban spaces on several levels. He particularly stresses the opposition between Manhattan and New Jersey, which is populated by numerous rich provincials who go out in SoHo on Saturday nights. In the city of New York itself, he stresses the contrast between “White Manhattan” and the rest of the island, in the same way as between the Bronx and the two enclaves formed by Riverdale and the court on 44th Street, anchored in the “corroding hulks of the Bronx” (38). The borough of the Bronx, along with Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, is considered as the most dilapidated, violent and poor space in the city. When he goes to the Criminal Courts Buildings, McCoy is shocked by the urban panorama which is displayed before his eyes – “It was not merely decrepit and sodden but ruined, as though in some catastrophe”, he said (490) – far from the Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo, which white people occasionally visit.

10But Wolfe does not just write about the contrasts that were specific to the 1980s. He presents us with a city that is undergoing a profound transformation. On this issue, he echoes Charyn (1986) who said of New York at the same time that it develops by biting its own tail and illustrates one of the famous lines of Detective Lennie Briscoe from the television series Law & Order, who would say humorously: “This is New York City. You don’t like the neighborhood? Wait for 10 minutes.” As a consequence of gentrification, which was mainly rooted in the high income from finance, some areas underwent a renaissance. This was particularly the case of Brooklyn Heights, one of the first gentrified areas in New York (Lees 2003), as well as of the Lower East Side, which was revitalised by artists from the middle of the 1970s and reconverted to contemporary art and its commercialisation at the beginning of the 1980s (Smith and DeFilippis 1999). Wolfe in particular describes the gradual transformation of TriBeCa, where buildings were converted into offices and apartments as well as that of Harlem, which at the time of the novel was on the verge of becoming a middle class area once more.

11The process of gentrification in New York, far from being linear, seems to be cyclical. The Bronx, for example, which was once “the summit of the Jewish dream, of the new Canaan, the new Jewish Borough of New York” (38) was radically impoverished from the end of the 1970s. Its Grand Concourse, which was the pride of its inhabitants because of its middle class houses, was then transformed into a “Mayan ruin”, as Charyn (1986) puts it. Entire blocks were left abandoned following the migration of the Jewish and Irish populations. The novel in particular deals with the failure of big urban projects, such as The Edgar Allan Poe projects, which gradually became ghettoes filled with blacks and Puerto Ricans and from which came Henry Lamb, the young black man who was knocked over by McCoy’s car.

12In this urban mosaic, the fear of going to the South Bronx and even worse of getting lost in it is deep-seated in the wealthy population of Manhattan. The figure of the “black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers” is anchored in the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of 96th Street, as Wolfe puts it (17). More generally, the fear of the other transforms social relationships into a jungle full of predators and preys. “Two niggers tried to kill us in the jungle, and we got outta the jungle, and we are still breathing, and that’s that” (98) sums up Maria, McCoy’s mistress, after their accident in the Bronx. Throughout the novel’s 720 pages, the metaphor of predation is dominant: when he goes home on the subway, assistant district attorney Kramer is afraid he might get caught by a pack of wolves “like some stray calf from the herd” (186). It is also fear which rules over the employees of the Bronx County Supreme Court, who are so terrified of the violence that rules in the streets around them that they only eat sandwiches delivered into the secure compound of the building.

13By writing about McCoy’s downfall, Wolfe paints a portrait of urban America at the end of the 1980s that is close to that of Far West pioneers. “This was Indian country, and bandit country, and it was time to put the wagons in a circle for the night” (189) says the author, as though he wants to further emphasise the fear and competition for space which are born of the coexistence of social groups which are not supposed to meet in town.

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Charyn J. 1986. Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace and Magical Land. New York City, Putnam’s.

Lees L. 2003. Super-gentrification: The case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City. Urban Studies 40(12): 2487-2509.

Smith N, Defilippis J. 1999. The Reassertion of Economics: 1990s Gentrification in the Lower East Side. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 23(4): 638-653.

Warf B. 2000. New York: the Big Apple in the 1990s. Geoforum 31: 487-499.

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1  All page numbers refer to the 2010 edition.

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Electronic reference

Olivier Walther, “New York City: A Burning Portrait of Urban America”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2011, Online since 13 January 2011, connection on 27 September 2021. URL:

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About the author

Olivier Walther

Olivier Walther is a Researcher at the Department of Geography, Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg. He holds a PhD from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen. His major research interests lie in informal economic networks and cross-border integration in West Africa. Aside from West African studies, Olivier Walther is involved in several research projects dedicated to cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe. Email:

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