On top of its book sales, film adaptation and third life as an opera, The Bonfire of the Vanities achieved a rare feat. It turned its author into a 56-year-old enfant terrible. Thirty years have passed since Tom Wolfe’s first novel imagined New York City as an opulent failed state, where millionaires are one wrong turn from barbarian mobs and race card-players on the make.
Critics recognised the virtuosity of the prose but also, in the stereotypes and the gleeful trampling on taboos, an illiberal malice. America’s cognoscenti has since treated Wolfe as somehow below stairs: a shock jock with a poet’s command of the language.
Read now, however, the book has more to say about 2017 than anything written of late. There are the obvious thematic echoes — the besieged rich, racial panics — but also one that Wolfe might never have intended. Bonfire can be read as a book about two different kinds of elite. You might characterise them as the moneyed and the cultured. Or as private enterprise and public life