Sherman McCoy imagines himself a Master of the Universe, spending his days making multi-million-dollar bond trades, or, as his wife puts it, collecting golden crumbs. Larry Kramer is an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, Jewish by birth but Irish by vocation, his heavy caseload and meager pay compensated for by fantasies of power and virility. Peter Fallow is a reporter for the City Light tabloid, struggling to stay sober long enough to write a story that will justify his continued employment. All of them are desperately trying to find, keep, and increase their place somewhere in the heap of humanity that is 1980s New York, the capital of the world. In their persons, the worlds of finance, politics, and the press collide, though in the end their defeats seem to possess more dignity than their victories.

In 2007, The New York Times published a retrospective on Wolfe's debut novel in which it crowed that "the New York of 'Bonfire,' to a degree that might well have shocked people in 1987, no longer exists." It is true, of course, that street crime in New York is far below the flood crest of the '70s and '80s, but street crime - as opposed to the fear of street crime - plays only an incidental part in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the last decade has certainly witnessed a resurgence of social unrest and tribalism, complemented by an outrage culture endemic to social media and epidemic in the press, so that we seem more than ever to be living in Bonfire's jungle. For proof, one need only compare the treatment of Sherman McCoy by a fictional tabloid with the treatment of the Duke Lacrosse players by the actual New York Times. The same Qoheleth who informs us that "all is vanity" also reminds us that "there is nothing new under the sun."

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