41FLvCi2O0L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Two entirely unconnected conversations on consecutive days led me to re-reading Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and reading, I hope, with an analytical eye.

It’s one of those books that I found hard going to begin with on the first reading, but which seemed far more accessible on this second try. It is also one of the books that has been adapted to film in such a way that raises the issue of changed agendas. Wolfe’s book examines ghetto mentalities, and politics. De Palma’s film dances lightly over the surface of such concerns.

It was Wolfe’s writing that interested me though, in this re-reading, because in one of those two conversations we had been discussing stories, and where they spring from. This story, I pontificated, had sprung from a mistake, ‘when a $48,000 Mercedes hits a street it shouldn’t have’, as the cover blurb of my paperback edition says. Neither of us, in the discussion, had read the book recently, and so memory was struggling to provide ‘the beginning.’ That accidental wrong turning, and what it leads to, is undoubtedly the ‘inciting incident’ (McKee, in ‘Story’), but there is a deal of groundwork done before we get to it. In fact, there is a Prologue, and three chapters to read before we get to that incident. What then, you might ask, would the ‘obligatory scene’ be? (to which I say….watch this space).

Whether in short stories, or novels, beginnings (and endings) always catch my interest – My guess is that people remember the beginnings of novels, and the endings of short stories: How About You? (to quote Lynerd Skynerd). In a short story, I suspect, we’d kick off with that incident, and reduce the Prologue and chapters three to a sentence and two paragraphs! What is Wolfe doing with them? What does he need them for?

The Prologue starts in the middle of a nascent riot. He jumps in with both feet, right in the middle of an altercation between a speaker and a heckler:

 

‘And then say what? Say “Forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by

some racist cop – Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem-“’

 

That riot, which will erupt over the TV screens of the other protagonists as the story unfolds, signals the breakdown not so much of a consensus, but of the assumption that there is one. As the Mayor is driven from the stage by the ‘black’ mob, the first of Wolfe’s ‘vanities,’ the illusion that the Jewish/white power group is seen as representing all the other groups that make up his New York is being torched. This prologue sets the wider scene into which protagonist Sherman McCoy will drive his Mercedes, and it is not a benign one. The shock experienced by the Mayor, though, is as powerful as the anger being expressed by the crowd. This novel, at heart, is how that shock is experienced, and responded to by our ‘hero,’ Sherman McCoy.

Three more chapters of preparation to come, though, and the first introduces Sherman. Wolfe ends it by telling us just who we’re dealing with. Like a tour guide pointing out a landmark, the omniscient narrator gives us the authorial word on Sherman:

 

‘The Master of the Universe was cheap, and he was rotten, and he was a liar.’

 

The chapter headings in Bonfire of the Vanities are worth paying attention to. That Prologue was called ‘Mutt on Fire,’ for example. Chapter two is called ‘Gibralter.’ The word,  presumably, carries a different weight of meaning for an American reader, and writer, but what’s clear I think is that it represents a fortress held in ‘enemy territory,’ and against the will of the locals; a fortress manned by people brought in from elsewhere; a fortress in which the locals are judged, ruled, and imprisoned by those incomers. And this Gibraltar is, in fact, the building from which justice is applied to the people of the Bronx. Among the incomers is the story’s main antagonist, Lawrence Kramer. He is an Assistant District Attorney, who catches the ‘D train’ from his crummy apartment, wearing sneakers instead of leather shoes – to reduce the chances of being mugged or harassed during the journey.

He bumps into Kovitsky, one of the judges (a Pole?), and the two are subjected to a barrage of insults from the inmates of a prison van. Whilst Kramer keeps his head down, Kovitsky confronts them head on. For film buffs, this is the character so neatly excised from the book in the process of adaptation. In the film, the magisterial Morgan Freeman plays a humane and wise, and, obviously, black judge, to replace the belligerent, and no less wise, but, obviously, white Kovitsky, thus neatly stripping the story of most of its power, and perhaps, point..

For the third chapter we go back to McCoy. It is his story that will remain centre stage, and so before we get into motion, Wolfe gives us another side of McCoy’s life, and of his character.

By the end of this extended beginning – chapter 4,  King of the Jungle, opens some 75 pages into the text in my edition – we have seen the wider environment of the city, McCoy’s personal environment, and both Kramer’s home, and workplace, that Gibraltar where McCoy will be challenged, in the prison cell as much as in the courtroom itself, to stand up and fight for his privileges as the ‘vanities’ burn down around him.

Curiously, this seems to me to be very much the in the pattern, of Location (in time and place), Situation, and Characters, the three pillars of story, that we have been looking at in the Facets of Fiction workshops over the last couple of months.

Being a novel, and a chunky one at that, you won’t find The Bonfire of the Vanities in Readings For Writers, which looks at the short story form!Readings For Writers cover

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