May 15, 2018


While Malcolm Muggeridge was the editor of Punch, it was announced that Khrushchev and Bulganin were coming to England. Muggeridge hit upon the idea of a mock itinerary, a lineup of the most ludicrous places the two paunchy pear-shaped little Soviet leaders could possibly be paraded through during the solemn process of a state visit. Shortly before press time, half the feature had to be scrapped. It coincided exactly with the official itinerary, just released, prompting Muggeridge to observe: We live in an age in which it is no longer possible to be funny. There is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.

—Tom Wolfe in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast:  A literary manifesto for the new social novel,” Harpers, November, 1989.

In retrospect, it seems clearer than ever that Bonfire had two things to tell its readers about New York. First, that it was a city of classes, rigidly stratified and riven with envy and fear; second, that it was no less deeply divided by ethnicity. Nothing else mattered. To understand a New Yorker, Wolfe declared, you needed only to plot two points on that pair of intersecting axes, and you could do it without inquiring about his interior life. Was he black or Jewish? Did he wear sneakers or British hand-lasted shoes? That was all you knew and all you needed to know.

All this goes a long way toward explaining the colossal impact Bonfire had back in 1987. I remember reading it with the same sense of bedazzled revelation that George Orwell’s Winston Smith read The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism. It was as though the veil of euphemism had been pulled back—no, ripped down—and for the first time I saw New York as it was:

Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don’t even know, do you? Do you realy think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?…You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?

Were people talking like that in 1987? Sure—but they didn’t publish that kind of talk, which is what made Bonfire so thrilling. As I wrote in The New Criterion on the fifth anniversary of the book’s publication, “Rereading Bonfire, I found myself thinking, over and over again, Nobody would print that today….Without access to a realism of this degree of specificity and honesty, it is impossible for a writer to describe New York, or America, as it really is. Yet who can imagine any New York editor allowing such things to get into print nowadays?”

— “Tom Wolfe, R.I.P.,” Terry Teachout, today.

What saves Wolfe’s work from descending into nihilism is the extraordinary American exuberance of his prose — his work reads as if Huck Finn grew up and went to Yale and got a Ph.D. (as Wolfe did) before realizing he could not be “sivilized” to stand in front of a classroom and just teach. He needed to light out for the uncivilized territories of the five boroughs, where the American elite spent and continue to spend their lives playing status games they cannot win.

We shall not see Tom Wolfe’s like again.

—“Tom Wolfe captured and caricatured New York City better than anyone,”John Podhoretz, the New York Post, today.

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