Do you ever want a modern soundtrack to literary fiction? Yes? Me too. That’s the point of this feature. Whereas some people imagine cinematic montages in their head, I create a soundtrack.
Okay, so I actually do both, but I prefer to share my soundtrack.
I read The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe for the first time almost a year ago. I revisited it over the last week because I genuinely enjoyed the book and because I love the ‘80s (as long as I don’t have to relive them), though it bears noting I did not read it again. I skimmed – Tom Wolfe is a verbose fellow. I generally forgive him because he’s the undisputed king of glib smartasses. That being said, and despite the fact that I do like it, there’s not a lot for women to love in this book (say if one was looking for a finely drawn female character). However, if you enjoy watching men being egotistical fools, this book is for you.
The Bonfire of the Vanities offers a colorful portrait of the 1980s; it is the “quintessential novel” of that decade. May brown lipstick forever rest in peace…
Looking at Sherman McCoy , hunched over like that and dressed the way he was, in his checked shirt, khaki pants, and leather boating moccasins, you would never guess what an imposing figure he usually cut. Still young… thirty-eight years old… tall… almost six-one… terrific posture… terrific to the point of imperious… a full head of sandy brown hair… a long nose… a prominent chin… He was proud of his chin. The McCoy chin, the Lion had it too. It was a manly chin, a big round chin such as Yale men used to have in those drawing by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin, if you want to know what Sherman though. He was a Yale man himself. But at this moment his entire appearance was supposed to say: “I’m only going out to walk the dog.”
“You’re lying!” She gave him a hideous smile. “And you’re a rotten liar. And you’re a rotten person. You think you’re so swell, and you’re so cheap. You’re lying, aren’t you?”
“I’m not lying. I swear to God, I took Marshall for a walk, and I came back in here, and wham, I mean, I hardly know to say, because I truly don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re asking me to prove a negative proposition.”
And what would he do then? I’m already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up in his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000. But he had to pay out $21,000 a month for th $1.8 million loan he had taken out on the apartment. What was $21,000 a month to someone making a million a year? That was the way he had thought at the time – and in fact, it was merely a crushing, grinding burden – that was all!
“What insidious little trouble makes in her class had been spreading this poison? So far as Sherman knew, Campbell still believed in Santa Claus, and here she was, beginning to question the existence of God! And yet… it was a precocious question for a six year old, wasn’t it? No two ways about it. To think that such a speculation – “But what if there isn’t!? She was annoyed. Asking for the history of the question was no answer.
“But there is a God, sweetie. So I can’t tell you about ‘if there isn’t’”. Sherman tried never to lie to her. But this time he felt it was the prudent course. He had hoped to never discuss religion with her. They had begun sending her to Sunday school as St. James’ Episcopal Church… That was the way you tool care of religion. You enrolled that at St. James’ and you avoided talking or think about religion again.
Sherman resumed his walk toward First Avenue in a state of agitation. It was in the air! It was a wave! Everywhere! Inescapable! … Sex! … There for the taking! … It walked down the street, as bold as you please! … It was splashed all over the shops! If you were a young man and halfway alive, what chance did you have? … Technically, he had been unfaithful to his wife. Well, sure… but who could remain monogamous with this, this, this tidal wave of concupiscence rolling across the world? Christ almighty! A Master of the Universe couldn’t be a saint, after all…
Two figures! Two young men – black – on the ramp, coming up behind him… Boston Celtics!… The one nearest to him had on a silvery basketball warm-up jacket with CELTICS written across the chest… He was no more than four or five steps away… powerfully built… His jacket was open… a white t-shirt… tremendous chest muscles… a square face… wide jaws… a wide mouth… What was that look? Hunter! Predator! … The youth stared Sherman right in the eye…walking slowly…The other one was tall but skinny, with a long neck, a narrow face…a delicate face…eyes wide open…startled…He looked terrified..He wore a big loose sweater…He was a step or two behind the big one…
What are they ding on the ramp? Haven’t done anything – haven’t threatened. But they will! Just be nice. Are you insane? Do something! Act! A sound filled his skull, the sound of a rushing stream. He held the tire up in front of his of chest. Now!
07. The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest / Bob Dylan
They reached the exit. He held on for dear life, as if a tornado were going to rise up at any moment and blow them out of the proper groove and – back to the Bronx!
He was not merely a Master of the Universe; he was more; he was a man. Grinning and humming. “Show me but ten what are stouthearted men,” the stouthearted man, still damp from the fray, walked the two blocks to his duplex apartment overlooking the street of dreams.
“Oh, I think it’s an intrinsically important story. But, you know, they’re very sensitive about this sort of thing. If we did a story about life in the white council flats, that would be all right, but I don’t think there are any white council flats in New York. This is a very delicate area and one that’s causing me some concern just now. We’re already getting some rumblings from these organizations, accusing The City Light of being anti-minority, to use their term. Now, it’s all right to be a white newspaper – what could be more pure white than the Times? – but it’s quite another thing to pick up that reputation. That makes a great many people uneasy, including, I might say, advertisers. I received a letter the other day from some outfit calling itself the Third World Anti-Defamation League.” He dragged out the term anti-defamation as if it were the most ludicrous concoction imaginable.
He hadn’t thought he would be able to face the television screen, and yet he turned it on. The vilification poured forth from every channel. Prominent Wall Street investment banker, top echelon at Pierce & Pierce, socialite, prep school, Yale, spoiled son of the former general partner of Dunning Sponget & Leach, the Wall Street law firm, in his $60,000 Mercedes sports roadster (now and extra $10,000), with a foxy brunette who was not his wife and not anything like his wife and who makes his wife look dowdy by comparison, runs over an exemplary son of the deserving poor, a young honor student who grew up in the housing projects, and flees in his fancy car without so much as a moment’s pity, let alone hel, for his victim, who now lies death.
He looked at his daughter and tried to feel the pangs, but it was an intellectual exercise. It was all so sad and heavy, heavy, heavy.
It was a sunny day this time, a balmy day in June. The air was so light it seemed pure and refreshing, even here in the Bronx. A perfect day, in short; Sherman took it badly. He took it personally. How very heartless! How could Nature, Fate – God – contrive such a sublime production for his hour of misery? Heartlessness on all sides.
“I have nothing to do with Wall Street and Park Avenue. I’m a professional defendant. I’ve undergone a year of legal harassment, and I’ll undergo another – or perhaps 8 1/3 to 25.”
Occasionally I can’t find quotes to match songs that I want to include…(suggestions are always welcome, but I feel like that’s asking an awful lot from my small readership). And conversely, occasionally I can’t find songs for particular quotes, I would’ve loved to have thought of something for “Bullshit reigns.”.
What’s your quintessential song of the ’80s (mine is Tainted Love)? Have you read The Bonfire of the Vanities? Anyone see the positively dreadful film adaptation?
PS: I’m open to suggestions for my next literary mixtape. I’m not holding out any hope, as this feature is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I’m listening…