What the dickens! Tom Wolfe has written a New York novel

The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 659 pp. $19.95. To live in '80s New York, Sherman McCoy knows, you have to insulate. And few of his contemporaries have done a better job of surrounding themselves with protective cushions than 38-year-old Sherman, son of a famous Manhattan lawyer, educated at Yale, and now one of the top bond traders on Wall Street.

Fifty floors above New York's teeming, dirty streets, Sherman pulls down a cool million a year cutting megabuck deals. He lives in a $3 million Architectural Digest apartment with his social-climbing wife, young daughter, a housekeeper, and a nanny. Weekends are spent in Southampton, evenings at dinner parties of the Rich and Famous or cavorting with a sleek young mistress named Maria. Sherman McCoy's New York is a safe, sound, controlled environment.

Tom Wolfe's New York is less easily held at bay. It's not a melting pot so much as a seething caldron of racial, ethnic, and class resentments. And in the inexorable consequences of an oh, so little mistake, New York - the real New York - rushes through a seam in Sherman's insulation.

One night, driving with Maria in his Mercedes sports coupe, Sherman misses an expressway turn and finds himself lost in the hideous streets of the South Bronx. Suddenly they are blocked by a makeshift barricade. When Sherman gets out to remove the debris, he is approached in what seems to be a menacing way by two black youths. In the white couple's haste to get away, one of the teen-agers is grazed by the car.

After going to a hospital for treatment of a broken wrist, the boy sinks into a coma. When police trace the car to Sherman, the Bronx district attorney - a publicity-mad Jew running for reelection in a borough dominated by blacks and Puerto Ricans - has what he has ached for: the Great White Defendant.

Prodded by a boozy reporter trying to salvage his career, an aging ``movement'' lawyer, and a black minister/con artist who finds racial tension helpful in extorting money from liberal charities, the DA sets out with a vengeance to refute community gibes about ``white justice'' in ``Johannesbronx.''

Sherman McCoy of Park Avenue and Wall Street, WASP extraordinaire, finds himself caught in the terrifying Dreyfusian vortex where law, politics, and bigotry converge. His case becomes a cause c'el`ebre and he a symbol - a symbol whose usefulness requires that he be ground to dust.

Wolfe, a journalist and nonfiction writer best known for his biting social satire and careening prose, is under splendid control throughout this gripping first novel. To be sure, the satire is still there. Wolfe can deftly stage antic scenes, as when haughty waiters in a society restaurant fastidiously step over a heart-attack victim awaiting an ambulance, or a madcap melee in a Bronx courtroom. And the author isn't above naming Wall Street law firms Dunning, Sponget & Leach and Curry, Goad & Pesterall.

But Wolfe never settles for the cheap shot. Even as he skewers the affectations of greedy yuppies and society matrons emaciated by their aerobics, gazes unsentimentally at brutality, self-destructiveness, and self-pity in the underclass, or lays bare the cynicism of prosecutors and defense lawyers who alike feed off the troubles of the hapless ``chow'' streaming through the criminal courts, he never loses sight of their rounded humanity.

Satire is laid aside altogether when Sherman is yanked into the maw of the criminal-justice system. Stripped of the armor of money and social position that had seemed impregnable, Sherman is vulnerable to previously unimaginable people and forces. No longer an actor but only acted upon, he becomes, he feels, a mere cavity into which others are free to pour the bile of their own fears, hatreds, and schemes. He is a cipher, an emptiness whom detention officers address by first name, the faceless career steppingstone of a young prosecutor drunk on power. ``A liberal,'' Sherman decides, ``is a conservative who has been arrested.''

Indeed, this book will shake readers who have regarded with unqualified trust the criminal-justice system and the society it mirrors. But the book, if it has political overtones, does not yield banal political conclusions. Wolfe is far too evenhanded in his sharp-edged treatment of the characters and their milieus for the novel to be a haven for ideologues.

This book - with its wide canvas, vivid characters who stop just short of being caricatures, stinging humor that betrays the underlying anger of the idealist, and perfect rendering of a specific city in a specific time - invites comparison with Dickens. (The novel was originally serialized, in Dickens fashion, in Rolling Stone.) That may be a reach, but not by much. One has to be grateful to Tom Wolfe for producing a richly textured, contemporary novel whose epicenter is situated in the social concerns that so much of today's minimalist, self-absorbed fiction ignores.

James Andrews is on the Monitor's staff.

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