"The only reward to be expected from the cultivation of literature is contempt if one fails and hatred if one succeeds."
When Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities came out in England more than a decade ago, I reviewed it in the Times with that special elation obscure Soviet dissidents once reserved for their brethren mentioned by name at disarmament conferences and peace summits. Here, after all, was one of our own, yet so famous he was now safe. Here was a sartorial rebel, an avowed syntactic guerrilla, a wolf in wolfs clothing, an insouciant raconteur who not only did not give a damn about the half-truths of the moment, he dared to expose the half-lies. Here was a bad boy with his finger in the dyke, a devil-may-care moralist holding back a universal flood of immoral banality. Here was a stain of purity on the covers of whorish magazines, spitting sardonic paradoxes in the face of a reading public that their editors did their best to corrupt. Later, of course, some of those famous dissidents turned out to have been KGB stooges, but that is not the point. At least I don't think it is.
Not only was The Bonfire of the Vanities a splendid novel which had slipped through the cordon sanitaire of the American press to spread its moral contagion, it was a novel about the American...