It's obvious that Sherman McCoy in "Bonfire" would not have had a catastrophic car accident if he had been driving an old Ford instead of a new Mercedes alone (without his mistress).
This is true but not, I think, for the reason you suggest. Â What Wolfe was trying to do in Bonfire
is show the whole city, high and low, rich and poor, black and white. Â He has said many times in interviews that when he started, his model was Thackeray's Vanity Fair
. But he quickly realized that this was inadequate, because Thackeray's book deals only with the upper classes, and a certain kind of social climbing striver at the margins. Wolfe had to concoct a plot in which these disparate elements of the city would come together.Â Having a middle class guy in a Ford wouldn't have done the trick. Â Also, remember the motivations of Abe Weiss. Â Captain Ahab needed someone like Sherman. Â A middle class guy in a Ford wouldn't have satisfied him either. Â Wolfe makes this clear in the little speech by Jimmy Caughey about the man from the North Bronx who shot his mother-in-law. Part of what Wolfe is trying to show in Bonfire
is that modern New York is at least as stratified as Victorian London ever was. Rembemer Rawlie Thorpe's speech (as recollected by Sherman)? "Insulate, insulate, insulate ... which meant, insulate yourself from those people. Â Sherman found the smug cynicism terribly au courant
." Â The only two places in New York where the white upper class and the non-white working class meet with any regularity are in the philanthropy sector and the justice system. Â The former is represented by Dunning Sponget lawyer Edward Fiske's trip to Harlem to see Reverend Bacon. Â The latter is represented by the rest of the book. As for all the brand names, yes, it's obvious that Wolfe is interested in clothes, and he certainly gets knocked for it. But I don't think there is anything hypocritcal about the way he describes the clothing of his characters, and their eventual fates. Â The clothing descriptions are a literary device. Â They serve as details that tell you a character's social class, or, more precisely, his status
within the various hierarchies of the modern world. Â Wolfe uses clothing to indicate where a character fits in to the world at large, as well as where he fits in to whatever subculture(s) he belongs to. Â More importantly, they serve to indicate where the character thinks
he fits in. Balzac uses furniture the same way. Â There was a fascinating post recently on another forum about how some Russian writers indicate status through overcoats. As for Sherman's fate, the single greatest strength of the book is how eminently plausible
it is. Basically, Wolfe thinks up a fictional incident (Sherman's encounter in the Bronx). The incident is like a big rock hitting a glassy pond. The rest of the book is Wolfe describing the ripples, exactly as they are -- or, to say better, as they would be.