t was 30 years ago that Tom Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. To say that it was a once-in-a-decade success may be an understatement. It wasn’t just a critical triumph. And it wasn’t just the No. 1 New York Times bestseller for eight weeks. Set in what Wolfe, in its opening pages, described as the “greatest city of the 20th century,” it took readers on a lively, fast-moving tour of New York City at its highest and lowest—from Wall Street brokerages, Park Avenue penthouses, and posh Manhattan bistros to the grungiest Bronx slums, courtrooms, and jails. It offered a tense, gripping page-turner of a story; it had a colorful, well-nigh Dickensian cast of characters; and it portrayed these people’s duplicities, hypocrisies, and superficial values with wit and precision, pulling back a curtain on the complex political workings and unwritten social codes of the metropolis that was, at the time, the planet’s economic engine.
Not least, the 659-page Bonfire reminded readers of the awe-inspiring scale on which a novel could operate—the rich specificity it could convey, the gritty candor it could achieve, the sheer excitement it could generate. No, it didn’t have the depth of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (but it was better written); you certainly couldn’t say of it, as you could of many sublime shorter works, such as Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that it was near-perfect, gem-like, without a word out of place; and it wasn’t heartbreakingly beautiful, like Alice McDermott’s At Weddings and Wakes or Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge. But in its sheer scope, panoramic sweep, and irresistible energy, Bonfire made most other American novels of the day, big or small, “literary” or otherwise, look like failures of imagination, ambition, or both.
Reviewing the book in the Washington Times, I noted that while it was “common nowadays…for novelists to fill their work with irrelevant detail,” Wolfe provided particulars that were “wonderfully appropriate throughout,” as befitting an author who, like many a 19th-century English master, was “fascinated by the manners and morals of his well-heeled contemporaries.” While carping about its sometimes “feverish” style, easy ironies, and ultimately implausible hero, Sherman McCoy—a young bond trader who makes a wrong turn in his car and is plunged into a life-altering confrontation—I mostly heaped praise on the novel. The ambitious young authors of such recent bestsellers as Bright Lights, Big City seemed to be familiar with only a small portion of the city and to regard it as “little more than a playground for relatively affluent young white people who grew up somewhere else,” but Wolfe knew the city inside and out and understood what made it tick. While other New York writers, moreover, “delicately avoid[ed]…race and crime,” Wolfe was remarkably honest about these subjects, notably in his portrait of a cynical race hustler named Reverend Bacon (whom Wolfe invented before the man’s real-life equivalent, Al Sharpton, became a household name) and in his savvy recognition that moneyed Manhattanites viewed racial prejudice not as a moral failing but as “a sign of inferior social status, of poor taste.” My conclusion: “In an era of arid, inert little novels, this big book resounds with life.”
In the same year that Bonfire appeared, I had my say on those “arid, inert little novels” in an essay entitled “The Literary Brat Pack.” The words “brat pack” had recently become a popular label for a group of young actors (among them Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy) who starred in teen movies like The Breakfast Club; I applied the term to a circle of young writers (including David Leavitt, Meg Wolitzer, Peter Cameron, and Susan Minot) who were now being hailed as tomorrow’s literary superstars. Like hundreds of other members of their generation, they’d attended college writing programs, where they’d learned to imitate the plainspoken, narrow-gauge fictions of such established elders as Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. Minimalistic in style and claustrophobic in purview, these kids’ stories, with rare exceptions, were unabashedly autobiographical, recounting with precious little in the way of insight or meaningful dramatic conflict the family tensions and puerile sexual relationships of privileged twentysomethings very much like themselves. Did their jejune navel-gazing, I wondered in my essay, really represent the future of American letters?
What happened to all those ambitious young minimalists? Well, one of the things that happened to them was Bonfire. Take the case of Bret Easton Ellis. In 1985, at the age of 21, Ellis published his 208-page debut novel, Less than Zero, a plotless glimpse into the drug-fueled antics of a gang of rich Los Angeles teens. Celebrated from coast to coast, this piece of fluff made Ellis the hottest Brat Packer of all. In 1987, the year of Bonfire, Ellis published The Rules of Attraction, another shallow look at shallow youth. But in 1991, after the success of Bonfire (and of the 1987 film Wall Street), Ellis reached somewhat higher, producing his own 399-page book about a Wall Street stockbroker. The twist was that Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, was also a serial killer—the premise apparently being that this activity was somehow linked to the superficiality and materialism of his yuppie subculture. But Ellis, in straining for significance, achieved only sick, superficial sensationalism, and his book’s mediocrity only reminded one, by contrast, of the merits of Bonfire.
In 1989, Wolfe provided a combination manifesto and apologia for Bonfire. In his essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” he explained that he had long wanted to write a compendious “novel about this astonishing metropolis…a novel of the city, in the sense that Balzac and Zola had written novels of Paris and Dickens and Thackeray had written novels of London.” What he was aiming for was a novel in the naturalistic tradition, a genre that had counted Americans, too, among its practitioners—Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis most notable among them. Unfortunately, naturalism had fallen into disrepute among the nation’s literary tastemakers, who were more impressed by absurdists, magic realists, fabulists, and minimalists like Beattie, Carver, and their Brat Pack protégés. Wolfe wondered why they’d chosen to work within such stifling limits. “After all,” he observed,
they, like me, happened to be alive in what was, for better or worse, the American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history….We were alive in the first moment since the dawn of time in which man was able at last to break the bonds of Earth’s gravity and explore the rest of the universe. And, on top of that, we had created an affluence that reached clear down to the level of mechanics and tradesmen on a scale that would have made the Sun King blink….What a feast was spread out before every writer in America! How could any writer risk plunging into it?
He called for “a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”
Ten years ago, on Bonfire’s 20th anniversary, Anne Barnard looked back on it in the New York Times, noting that while much of it (such as the portrait of Reverend Bacon) was prophetic, it also depicted a New York that, to a remarkable extent, had already disappeared by 2007. In a city that had seemed in 1987 to be hurtling toward anarchy, a mayor named Giuliani had overseen a stunning recovery. Crime rates had plummeted; slums whose underclass residents Wolfe had seen as destined to multiply and spread out, overrunning even the tonier parts of Manhattan, had themselves become rapidly gentrified. These trends have continued. Rereading the book recently, I imagined that to some young readers today, it might feel as old-fashioned as Middlemarch. It’s pre-cellphone, pre–World Wide Web. There are pay telephones; the bond traders’ ultra-high-tech computer screens are black with green letters and numbers on them. The Soviet Union still exists; 9/11 lies in the future; McCoy’s view of himself as a “Master of the Universe” seems quaint when one considers the wealth and power of today’s Silicon Valley billionaires.
Bonfire was followed, in 1998, by Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, another wide-screen spectacular rooted in first-rate reporting. It, too, sold like hotcakes and earned glowing reviews. But this time, two literary heavyweights decided it was time to ruin Wolfe’s fun: John Updike and Norman Mailer wrote long takedowns of Wolfe’s new book, both arguing that it was not literature but mere journalism. Interviewed on TV, John Irving agreed. In 2000, Wolfe shot back in an essay, “My Three Stooges,” in which he unfavorably compared Updike’s, Mailer’s, and Irving’s latest novels with his own. In at least two of these cases, he had a point, and then some. Updike’s Toward the End of Time, a domestic narrative purportedly set in a post-nuclear-war 2020, was alarmingly undistinguished, a failure of energy and of imagination. Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son, a novel of Jesus, was even worse, a lazy piece of gimmickry that one can only imagine originating in a cynical phone call from the author to his agent: “Hey, here’s an idea for something I could bang out fast—how much could we get for this? ”
Wolfe gave Updike and Mailer exactly what they deserved, accusing them and Irving of “turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history.” Mailer died in 2007, Updike two years later. I prize Updike as a critic and stylist, but I can’t imagine wanting to reread any of his novels, and I suspect that this sentiment is widespread. As for Mailer, his reputation as an important writer, kept afloat throughout most of his lifetime by his self-promotional genius, has crashed and burned since his death. Like Wolfe, Mailer wrote his share of fat novels. Ancient Evenings, anyone? Harlot’s Ghost? In retrospect, it’s remarkable that such rubbish even made it into print. Wolfe, by the way, wasn’t alone in spearing these reputations: A year before “My Three Stooges,” David Foster Wallace, writing in the New York Observer, dismissed Updike, Mailer, and Philip Roth as “the Great Male Narcissists” of postwar realism and described Toward the End of Time as “so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.”
Updike and Mailer won all the awards. But neither has had much impact on the American novel over the past 30 years. Bonfire is another matter. Young writers who once might have kicked off their careers with slight autobiographical tales have instead made their names with formidable, frequently challenging works that they have tried to fill with life. Before committing suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace published The Broom of the System (1987, 467 pages) and Infinite Jest (1996, 1,088 pages). From Jonathan Safran Foer came the shorter but no less imposing Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005). Jonathan Franzen gave us The Corrections (2001, 568 pages). Don DeLillo, an older writer with many standard-gauge novels to his name, went bigger and bolder with Underworld (1997, 827 words).
All these books have their fervent admirers; some have achieved cult status; if the Brat Pack fictions are a starvation diet, these books are feasts. But instead of being gourmet concoctions, they’re more often the literary equivalent of an all-you-can-eat entrée containing everything from hush puppies and caviar to jelly beans and M&M’s, smothered in hollandaise and chocolate syrup. None of these books has Bonfire’s surefire combination of a Niagara-like narrative flow, disciplined design, and biting social criticism. Next to Wolfe, furthermore, all of these writers look predictably PC. However adventurous or downright reckless they may be in terms of structure and style, ideologically they march in near-lockstep. Looking back at Everything Is Illuminated in 2010, a Guardian critic lamented that it was “nowhere near equal to the sum of its parts.” The same could be said about pretty much all of these post-Bonfire doorstops.
Perhaps the most recent large-scale American novel that has accumulated both critical plaudits and an army of devoted readers on a level approaching Bonfire is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013, 784 pages). Its precipitating event is a huge terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wolfe might be interested in the attack itself and in its world-historical context. Tartt is interested in an itsy-bitsy Dutch painting that survives the attack and in the boy who makes off with it. She is also interested in making a grand literary statement about the meaning of art and in being perceived by the reviewers and award-givers as a top-flight belletrist. Although her book is set largely in New York City, it doesn’t capture the feel of the city in the way Wolfe does; Tartt’s New York City is the midtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village playground of the Brat Packers.
Like Wolfe, Tartt has been compared to Dickens; the difference is that while Wolfe, in Bonfire, took recognizable New York types and captured them with a broad Dickensian brush, Tartt gives the impression of having taken certain Dickensian types and tried to devise contemporary American versions thereof. When, since Bonfire, has a new American novel reached so far and grasped so much, while making so great an impact? I’m stumped. A single French novel does come to mind: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015), which brilliantly and chillingly imagines a France of the near future in which Islam has become the state religion.
When The Bonfire of the Vanities came out, the whole generation of postwar American literary bigwigs—Updike, Bellow, Vidal, Capote, Mailer, and Roth—was still alive. (Roth alone remains.) When their careers began, the novel was at the center of American culture. That has long since stopped being the case. World War I unleashed a raft of major novels both here and abroad—in Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front; in Britain, Parade’s End; in America, Three Soldiers and A Farewell to Arms. World War II gave us The Naked and the Dead, The Young Lions, and three major works by Herman Wouk, among much else. Sixteen years have passed since 9/11, the most earthshaking historical event of most of our lives, and no American has come close to writing a novel remotely worthy of that monstrous day or of the strange, disturbing era that has followed it—a period of obsessive identity politics, an age when books themselves have been replaced largely by electronic networks and devices, a time when violent jihadists pose an existential threat to our very civilization even as Muslims are our most protected class. It seems fair to say that, when one ponders literature from this perspective, The Bonfire of the Vanities was the American novel’s last hurrah.