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Richard Eder

Malice Toward All, Charity Toward Some : THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95; 659 pp.)

October 25, 1987|RICHAR EDER

What subway rider Bernard Goetz aimed at with his gun, the more gently-conveyed Tom Wolfe aims at with his novel. Both of them dramatize the jungle that threatens the peaceful urban citizen. Both have a point. Yet, both dehumanize their targets so they can, in fact, be targets instead of people. And both dehumanize themselves in the process.

This may seem unfair to the witty and thoughtful author of "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Wolfe's first work of pure fiction is infinitely more fun than Goetz's pistol, and infinitely less damaging. It is a comical and often ferociously acute satire of New York City life.

Satires are supposed to be harsh; that is not the problem. Furthermore, Wolfe's harshness ranges widely among Wall Street hotshots, high society, the press, city politics, the demagoguery of black leaders, the hopelessly engorged criminal justice system and corruptions great and small.

The harshness is even-handed. It is the sympathy that is one-sided and that gives "Bonfire," for all its felicities, a moral gimp.

Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street whiz-kid, a million-dollar-a-year man avid for real bucks, gets involved in a hit-and-run death while out driving with his mistress. The victim is a black youth. Agitated by a black community leader, an unscrupulous left-wing lawyer and a sensationalist tabloid, the incident stirs up a political firestorm.

Sherman, who was not really at fault, finds himself handcuffed, put inside a detention pen with a bunch of rough and non-WASPy fellow prisoners and facing a ruinous and seemingly endless series of trials. It is to be a legal lynching whose purpose, pressed by a politically minded district attorney, is to show the city's blacks and Latinos that the rich cannot get away with murder even if they didn't commit it.

Wolfe's New York is a wretched, teeming Third World capital dotted here and there with enclaves of privilege: Brooklyn Heights, Forest Hills and part of Manhattan. "Hong Kongs," Wolfe calls them. Weiss, the Bronx district attorney, whose borough is almost entirely Third World, puts it more picturesquely. "Manhattan is an offshore boutique," he says.

Sherman's tragicomedy begins when he falls out of his enclave. One night, he meets his girlfriend, Maria, at the airport and they head for their East Side love nest. Driving his Mercedes sports car, he takes a wrong turn off the highway, gets lost in the Bronx and is stopped by an old tire suddenly thrown in his path. He gets out, is confronted by two black youths apparently intent on robbing him, bops one of them with the tire and climbs hastily back into the car. With Maria now driving, they zip off. There is a faint thud but it's too dark to see what, if anything, has happened.

For Sherman and Maria, now safely back in their refuge, it has been a nightmare entirely recognizable to anyone who has driven through New York's roughest neighborhoods. What if the car breaks down? What if it runs out of gas?

When you awaken from a nightmare, of course, you don't think of the damage you may have done to the monsters . Sherman has a qualm or two, but the couple reports nothing to the police. There may, after all, have been nothing to report; and if there was, they were only defending themselves. It is a splendid scene, a splendid construct of understandable rationalizations. They abound throughout the book. Wolfe, founder-patron of the New Journalism with its proto-fictional techniques, slides into his novel as if it had been waiting for him all along.

It is a novel as morality tale, and its theme is "What fools these mortals be, and what a mess they have made of things." Wolfe recounts the steady downfall of Sherman with bravura and a fine mastery of plotting. His characters are social types, some of them so thinly drawn as to approach anorexia. What they are good at is inhabiting and dramatizing the institutions and customs that Wolfe reports with such wit.

East Side adultery, for example. To get out of his palatial apartment at night so he can telephone Maria and pay her a quick call of nature, Sherman insists to his wife, Judy, that he must walk their dachshund. It is raining and the dachshund resists. Under his doorman's quizzical eye, Sherman drags the toe-scrabbling animal down the sidewalk to a phone booth. Flustered, he dials his own number by mistake and asks Judy--he doesn't recognize her voice, of course--for Maria. One more high-life marriage goes on the skids.

Wolfe has great fun with the trading room on Wall Street where Sherman is a star. It is filled with "the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market." The boss' office, old-English and Chippendale, has a fireplace that cost $350,000 to tunnel through the high-tech vents and conduits.

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