Literature / The Bonfire of the Vanities

If you're going to live in a whorehouse, there's only one thing you can do: be the best damn whore around.
Peter Fallow

The Bonfire of the Vanities, written by Tom Wolfe, was originally serialized in Rolling Stone in 27 installments starting in 1984. It was published in novel form in 1987.

New York City. Sherman McCoy is a married investment banker and self-proclaimed "Master of the Universe" who carries on an affair with socialite Maria Ruskin. One night, they take a wrong turn in the Bronx and encounter two (supposedly) threatening black youths. In their confusion Ruskin, who was driving, accidentally runs over one of them; he is left in a coma. When word of this breaks out, all hell breaks loose for McCoy. Meanwhile, an Amoral Attorney, a tabloid reporter, a Strawman Political religious leader from the Bronx, an ambitious district attorney, and... well, the bulk of characters that the book follows decide to use the racially and socially-charged case to further their own agendas.

In 1990 the book was filmed. Directed by Brian De Palma and starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, it was a critical and commercial disaster. Writer Julie Salamon was granted full access during the Troubled Production and her book, The Devil's Candy, explains what went wrong.

The novel and film feature examples of:

  • Big Applesauce
  • The Big Rotten Apple: 1980s New York at its most dysfunctional on every level of society.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The way Kramer and his fellow prosecutors talk in the novel, which Wolfe allows to infect the narrative after one run of salty dialogue after he gets to work one morning: "Another fucking day at the Bronix Fucking District Attorney's Office was off to a fucking start."
  • Door Stopper
  • The '80s
  • Epic Movie: The movie was intended as this — huge budget, A-list cast and director, based on a bestselling and award-winning book, lots of characters, some posh settings.
  • Hidden Wire: Sherman wears one and tries to get Maria to admit that she was actually driving the hit-and-run vehicle. Things don't go as planned in the book.
  • Irishman and a Jew: Detective Martin and his partner Detective Goldberg; like most of the homicide bureau, Goldberg has assimilated to the prevailing Irish-American cultural ethos.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: A character says that Chinese wine tastes like "Dead Feet," which is the nickname for his boss.
  • Jerkass: Most of the characters in the book aren't supposed to be likable.
    • They're even less likable in the movie where the few sympathetic characters such as Sherman McCoy's wife and the victim's mother are presented as completely self-serving.
  • The Mistress: Maria to Sherman, and the juror with brown lipstick to Assistant District Attorney Kramer.
  • Narrator: Fallow in the film adaptation.
  • The Oner: The opening sequence of the film, tracking Peter Fallow as he arrives for an awards presentation, takes the viewer from a parking garage to a hotel ballroom in one long shot.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Averted with Sherman McCoy who snubs the parking garage attendant the night of the accident and comes to regret it when the police start asking questions.
  • Pretty in Mink: Maria in the movie wears a long sable coat.
  • Quote Mine: Fallow successfully paints the victim of the accident as an honor student based on an interview with one of his teachers, who explains that anyone who shows up to classes and doesn't cause trouble at that particular school might as well be one.
  • Race Lift: Alan Arkin was originally cast as the Judge, but when the producers decided to change the character from Jewish to African-American, he was replaced by Morgan Freeman. The change was due to complaints led by Spike Lee that, as it was, the story was racist.
  • Scary Black Man: Played with. This is how Sherman and Maria see the victim and his friend when they approach them after they have car trouble. The friend had merely asked them if they needed helped but later admits that he and the victim were going to rob them.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!!: Very much Sherman McCoy's attitude until he's arrested.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: The film version attempts this by changing the ending.
  • Tabloid Melodrama: What the hit-and-run becomes.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Most of the McCoys' friends and acquaintances.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: In the novel, while the characters ride in real car brands like Mercedes and BMW, they also eat at "Texas Fried Chicken" and use their "Global Express" card to buy things.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Sherman McCoy and ADA Kramer. It is more or less taken for granted that a man will stray once his wife gains weight or ages.

Alternative Title(s): The Bonfire Of The Vanities