Tom Wolfe, the great novelist and father of so-called New Journalism, was a writer like few others. Wolfe’s command of the English language was more than Glavine-esque, it was almost otherworldly. But it’s not just his diction and syntax that make him so great at the craft; it’s also his skill as a pop sociologist. Wolfe’s writing in itself is great, but what separates it from the product of most other artists is his ability to inhabit the minds of his characters and those upon whom they’re based. This Yale Ph.D. isn’t a stuffy academic detached from reality. Rather, he’s drenched in it, for what makes Wolfe so accessible is his view into the human condition.
You can see it all over the place in all of his writing. The observational prowess in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers is apparent. However, where I think his cultural exegesis is best, whether he knew it or not, is in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy, the centerpiece of The Bonfire, finds himself amid some legal proceedings stemming from an illicit evening with his mistress which consisted of, among other things, the striking of a young boy from the Bronx with his late model Mercedes-Benz. Wolfe chronicles McCoy’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to cover his tracks and in doing so shines a bright spotlight on every human’s existential experience: the inability to see ourselves for what we really are.
The Bonfire opens with a Sherman McCoy who is worth millions, the top-selling bond salesman at Pierce & Pierce, one of Wall Street’s high-powered financial firms. This Sherman McCoy lives in a lavish apartment on Park Avenue and he pays over $800 a month to park his two cars in the residential cooperative’s garage without thinking twice about it. McCoy has it all! The Yale degree, the career, the gorgeous wife and adorable child. And yet, he desires more. He seeks fulfillment in the arms of his mistress, Maria Ruskin. He desires purpose in the form of bigger commissions and extravagant paydays. This Sherman McCoy calls himself, literally, a “Master of the Universe.”
Of course, when we look at Sherman McCoy, we might not see a 1:1 correspondence with our own mirror image. Certainly many of us don’t see a criminal or a pathological liar, but we do see Sherman McCoy in at least one crucial way, for we all seek to be the masters of our own universes. We seek to be the gods over our own little slice of reality and, absent Christ, we all end up like Sherman McCoy, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator and all lamenting that, “It’s…sobering, how fast it goes when it goes…All these ties you have, all these people you went to school with and to college, the people who are in your clubs, the people you go out to dinner with—it’s all a thread…all these ties that make up your life, and when it breaks…that’s it!…That’s it…” No matter the reason for which it goes, we all have a tendency to be like the man whose life is required of him (Lk. 12), storing up status and wealth for ourselves as if we were the ones who tipped the scales in the final analysis. Wolfe himself even notes that, "I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.” When we are the masters of our own universe, we are nothing more than slaves to something, whether it be status, wealth, power, or whatever else.
Reading Wolfe presents a bleak picture of natural man’s deepest desires. A bonfire of humanity, if you will. Wolfe shows us a lot of Genesis 3:14, 16, 17, 18, and 19, but no Genesis 3:15. We get a fallen humanity, but not a redeemed humanity. We see affections pointed always toward untoward things, but never affections rightly ordered toward Christ. Reading Tom Wolfe does two things for us, I think. First, Wolfe forces us to come to grips with the depth and pervasiveness of the rot within our souls. Second, and more triumphantly, Wolfe’s work should point us to the finished work of Christ. It is exactly this sin, this rot in the soul, that Christ is victorious over and saves us from on the Cross. Interestingly, Wolfe doesn’t allow us to become the Pharisee from Luke 18. We have been made too vividly aware of our own sin to offer trite thank-yous unto God. Truly, Wolfe makes us so aware of our own sin that we must be the Publican in that story, for we have no other option than to throw ourselves on Christ’s mercy. Praise God that He’s faithful and just to forgive us and to draw us to Himself, not as a vindictive tyrant, but a loving Father.