Two Between the Ribs

How does he get away with it? Ever since Bonfire of the Vanities, I have wondered at Tom Wolfe's success. The success itself is well deserved: Wolfe is a dazzling writer, without peer as an observer of contemporary American life. But can't the brilliant social and literary critics of New York figure out what he is up to? Have they ever actually read his books? (A suspicion I have long held about some professors is that they discourse pompously upon classic works that they know only by the labels pasted on them by others.) In Bonfire, Wolfe exposed the warts beneath the expert makeup on the shining countenances of every institution and nearly every major ethnic group in New York City, revealing the self-appointed, supreme American beauty for what she is—a decayed, pox-ridden harlot. The novel is a rollicking good story that one does not have to be a New York Review of Books reader to enjoy. But as George Garrett has pointed out, coming from a Southerner like Wolfe, such an attack is a breach of manners equivalent to a dagger between the ribs.

When the movie version of Bonfire (a deserved flop) came out, my puzzlement was not satisfied. Every major character in the book—every telling point in the book—was transformed. In the novel, the Southern belle who catalyzes the plot is unscrupulous, but intelligent and forceful; in the movie, she is a simpering idiot. The unsympathetic...

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