The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

This book made a much deeper impression on me than I expected it to. At the very least, I will never look at jury duty in the same way again.

Sherman McCoy, a wealthy investment banker (white, obviously), is driving his mistress home from the airport one night when they take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx. Their car breaks down and when they get out to fix it, they are approached by three black teenagers asking if they need any help. McCoy and his mistress panic and haul ass away from the scary youths, and in their haste to drive away, McCoy hits one of the boys with his car.  The story follows McCoy trying to cover up the accident while the Bronx detectives and prosecutors in charge of the case try to figure out what happened, and the ensuing trial and its effects on the lives of everyone involved.

The book was engrossing, and I especially liked it for two specific reasons: the first is Tom Wolfe’s obvious and flattering admiration of the Irish – or at least, the fact that every single Irish character in the book is regularly described as a total BAMF. Case in point: “Irish bravery was not the bravery of the lion but the bravery of the donkey. As a cop, or as an assistant district attorney in Homicide, no matter what kind of stupid fix you got yourself into, you never backed off. You held your ground. That was what was scary about even the smallest and most insignificant of the breed. Once they took a position, they were ready to fight. To deal with them you had to be ready to fight also, and not many people on this poor globe were willing to fight…No, thought Kramer, they don’t need alcohol. They’re high on what tough, undeluded motherfuckers they are.”

I don’t know if Tom Wolfe is Irish, but if he isn’t he definitely wants to be.

The second thing I loved about the story was Judge Kovitsky, who makes Judge Judy look like a no-talent milquetoast. Here’s his idea of counseling a nineteen-year-old kid who’s been brought to court for being an accessory to armed robbery: “‘See?’ said Kovistsky. ‘You’ve got a job, you’ve got a home, you’re young, you’re a nice-looking, bright young man. You’ve got a lot going for you. You’ve got more than most people. But you’ve got one big problem to overcome. YOU BEEN INVOLVED IN ALL THESE FUCKING ROBBERIES!'”

He’s also fond of screaming at unruly courtroom spectators to “SHUDDUP!” and I adored him for it.

Verdict: four out of five stars


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