A third of the way into Tom Wolfe’s classic novel of the 1980’s, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a darkly comedic scene unfolds around Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer shortly after he starts investigating the case of Henry Lamb, a teenager who was the apparent victim of a hit-and-run. 

A Bronx detective sergeant regales Kramer with the story of a man called Pimp, from whom forty suits were stolen. Pimp decides to question a man named André Potts about the precious suits. André tells Pimp he doesn’t know anything, becomes annoyed at Pimp’s repeated queries, and walks out of the room. Pimp, feeling disrespected, responds by shooting André in the back three times, killing him. It’s a horrific crime, predicated on nothing other than an indicia of disrespect. “Oh, this was a real piece a shit,” Kramer quips. 

Minutes after hearing of this crime, Kramer takes a phone call from the District Attorney’s Press Secretary about another piece of shit, the case of Henry Lamb. The Lamb case will, in short order, blow up in the media and dominate the events of the concluding two-thirds of the novel. The Potts case will never be heard of again. 

The difference? Pimp and Potts are both black. So is Lamb, but his assailants, a rich man and woman driving a Mercedes, are white.

I picked up this novel last week after passing it by for well over three decades. I saw the movie — half of it, anyway — in the 90s and was unimpressed. What did impress me, reading Bonfire a year after the death of George Floyd, is how little things have changed in the nearly four decades since Tom Wolfe began researching and writing the novel.

Each of the major characters are recognizable in some form today. White Privilege incarnate makes an appearance in the form of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond trader who makes a million dollars a year (in the 80s, that was real money) and, after a wrong turn, becomes an accomplice to Lamb’s hit-and-run death. The DA, Abe Weiss (no relation), is more concerned with the media’s perception of his office than the actual workings of the office itself. There is a reporter, Peter Fallow, who cares not a whit about truth but obsesses over his own status. And then there is the Reverend Reginald Bacon (think Al Sharpton) who professes to care — loudly, and to anyone who will listen — about black lives in his neighborhood. And finally — finally! — there are the actual people of color, living in depressed neighborhoods, like André Potts, who turn out to be nothing but pawns pushed around the board by the story’s main characters.

Billed as a satirical novel, Bonfire may have had some comedic value in the ‘80s, but in 2021, the book is positively depressing. 

The New York Times, back in 2007, published a retrospective on the twenty-year anniversary of the novel. Contained within it is this, presently comedic, passage: “‘People were more tribal’ in the 1980s, he said.” The ‘he’ in this quotation being the Reverend Sharpton himself. 

Perhaps ‘he’ was, and is, right. I haven’t been to New York in over a decade, and I’m open to the possibility that the city has remained somewhat immune from the racial tensions that have percolated in recent years around the rest of the country, perhaps most notably in cities like Minneapolis. New York, in stark contrast to Minneapolis, has elected both Republican and Democratic Mayors in the years since Bonfire was published. Perhaps this political diversity has insulated the former from the more pernicious effects of tribalism that seem to have effected the latter. Minnesota’s Governor, just this week, on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death and in Abe Weissian fashion (again, no relation), sent a letter to all state employees urging them to “[recommit] ourselves to the work of undoing the generations of systemic racism that have plagued our state.”

Perhaps Governor Tim Walz, in light of everything that’s happened in the state in the last year, should pick up a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities and give it a read. The work of undoing the racism he decries begins with valuing people like André Potts — who, you may have forgotten, was shot three times in the back for disrespecting Pimp — as equally as we value people like Henry Lamb, who end up as the stars of our stories.

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