Tom Wolfe, who immortalised the phrase “Master of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities 30 years ago, lives in exactly the sort of apartment owned by the book’s bond-trader protagonist Sherman McCoy: “One of those apartments the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York, and for that matter, the world.”
The moment, in 1998, when I stepped inside the curiously dark lobby of Wolfe’s apartment co-op, I was interrogated by a doorman who was wearing a Prussian-looking green uniform with gold epaulettes. He scowled disdainfully at the ripped shopping bag clutched under my right arm. Inside were the 742-page galleys of Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, which I’d read in 26 hours flat – an experience I hadn’t repeated since I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1987 and first got my hands on Bonfire, which I had read through the night fuelled by takeaway pizza and dreams of one day working in America.
After reading Wolfe’s tale of the money-crazed world of 1980s New York, and then all his other “New Journalism” books, I wrote a 15,000-word thesis as part of my English finals on his satire, full of obtuse references to Swift and Juvenal. I brazenly sent Wolfe a copy, asking to interview him. He politely wrote back in a typed letter, signed with a florid 18th-century signature, thanking me for the thesis on his work:
I might add that since you mention me in the same breath with Evelyn Waugh, Thackeray and Wyndham Lewis – you’ll notice I say the same breath and not the same league – I now feel positively historic. But alas, I have been forced to put my feet in the stocks to compel myself to complete a book against a ferocious deadline. Once that’s out of the way, you’re on.
The letter (with triple-spaced hyphens) had been sent to the old Times offices in Wapping, where I worked, and was dated January 31, 1991 – more than seven years before we finally met. That’s how long it took him to write his follow-up novel.
As the mahogany-panelled elevator jerked to a stop on the 14th floor, I was greeted by a distinguished dandy, with lank, greying Eton Flop hair, standing in the polished marble hallway. Wolfe was decked out in an Edwardian three-piece, double-breasted, off-white suit. Beneath that he wore a starched white shirt with dark claret stripes, fitted with a dangerous-looking high-rise stiff white collar.
As I pulled the ripped bag behind me, using one of its broken faux-gold handles, Wolfe’s strobic blue eyes zoned in on the unsightly object sliding across his marble hallway floor. I explained that the manuscript was so large it would not fit in my briefcase.
When I asked Wolfe why his second novel had taken so long, he replied: “Mr Cash, I find it hard to write if I have any money in my bank account.” His advance when he signed his contract in 1989 was $7.5 million.
There are two things that people forget about Wolfe. First, judging himself by his contemporaries – who included John Updike and Norman Mailer – he was positively historic to be publishing his first novel at the ripe literary age of 56. Wolfe found this almost an embarrassment. He told me that the trepidation of being a debutante novelist at such an age had caused him to retire to bed with chronic back pain in the weeks before Bonfire hit the shelves in New York. The pains immediately subsided once the (mostly) roaring reviews and sales figures came in.
Wolfe’s skewering of the white plump meat of American capitalism came out just as Wall Street suffered the greatest single-day loss since the Crash of 1929. Bonfire was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for two months and sold more than 800,000 copies in hardcover. The phrase “Master of the Universe” came to sum up the aspirations of a generation of would-be Gordon Gekkos in the red-braces world of Wall Street in the late 1980s.
Bonfire drew on a tradition of conservative satire harking back to Evelyn Waugh. Wolfe’s brand of politically incorrect social criticism remains so important in a world where the Left seems to have an ever-increasing cultural monopoly, from the theatre to the BBC, news, arts, film, publishing and, most blatantly, the well-manicured groves of academia.
In the present political climate, it is possible that Bonfire would be regarded as so racially inflammatory that some publishers would “pass” rather that risk the Twitter wrath of the Left. Certainly the way Wolfe eagerly flame-grilled the ethnic, racial and religious tensions simmering below the surface of New York would outrage today’s liberal thought police.
Wolfe is essentially a moralist in the tradition of Mark Twain. His novels suggest the inversion of our modern age by describing inanimate objects in animalistic terms. In Bonfire, every time a train enters the New York subway “there was an agonised squeal, as if some huge skeleton was being pried apart by a level of incomprehensible power”. For Wolfe, that “incomprehensible power” is the force of society pressing down on individuals stopping in “the billion-footed city”.
Thirty years ago, Wolfe gave the reader a rollercoaster ride from the co-ops of Park Avenue to the holding pens of the Bronx.
By looking at the extremity of wealth in New York, and the lengths that the financial classes would go to attain money and keep it, he exposed the darker side of how we define ourselves as winners and losers.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s
This article first appeared in the November 17, 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald