Life Imitates Art: The Bonfire of the Vanities

A white man kills a black teenager, claiming he acted in self-preservation, though there are few or no credible witnesses. The dead youth is remembered as a model citizen, struggling to rise above prejudice and poverty, a martyr for the cause of racial justice. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson demand action. Demonstrations devolve into race riots, and politicians angle themselves to take advantage of the incident and get the vote out.

We’ve seen this pattern play out twice since 2012: first in the Trayvon Martin killing, then in the Micheal Brown killing. Just a few days the cycle started yet again, with an 18 year old man shot by police during a Micheal Brown-inspired riot in Ferguson Missouri.

Of course, bits of information being to surface that call the narrative into question: while the published photos of Trayvon Martin showed a cherubic boy of twelve or thirteen, at the time of his death he was a high-school senior who had been suspended on a possible weapons charge. The photos of Micheal Brown showed a hopeful graduate, but video from a convenience store security camera taken minutes before his death showed him shoving a clerk in a strong-armed robbery. Both men were high at the time of death, and marijuana can make a few individuals paranoid or aggressive. These men did not deserve to die, but we know that sometimes when flawed and aggressive men meet, events can quickly spiral into consequences neither of them would have anticipated or desired.

The process of a mildly thuggish teenager’s apotheosis into a civil right’s martyr, and the political fallout, is the subject of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 satire The Bonfire of the Vanities. His white killer (and protagonist) is the Wall Street investment banker Sherman McCoy: rich, shallow, ambitious and adulterous, he is exactly the sort of person we all love to hate. McCoy and his mistress take his Mercedes off the wrong exit off the highway and find themselves in a run-down part of the Bronx; debris blocking their way looks suspiciously like a road block, and two black men approach from the shadows: “Hey Man, need some help?” McCoy panics, reacting out of racial mistrust, guns the engine and knocks one of the men over.

The victim, Henry Lamb was semi-literate and had no hope of graduating, but his teachers considered him harmless, and that is enough to make him the martyr. The surviving black man, who reported that his friend was struck down by a white man in a Mercedes, was later arrested for car-jacking, a fact that is left out of media reports. McCoy for his part is mendacious, not reporting the accident so that his wife wouldn’t find out about his girlfriend. In the subsequent media firestorm, criminal proceedings, and riots, the fiction of his life, his absurd self-importance, his wealth, family and ambition, are slowly ground to dust.

Flawed men meet in a dark place, fear and suspicion take over. No one can guess the intentions of the dead, and the prudent course would be to withhold judgement. But journalists need to sell newspapers, and politicians need to get votes, so everyone leaps to conclusions.

I should point out that the movie adaption of The Bonfire of the Vanities is a waste of time, in large part because it avoids being controversial. But the book itself is worth reading, not only for its insight into the underbelly of American race relations, but for the marvelous picture it paints of 1980’s New York, before the Giuliani Renaissance, with its Italian gangsters, WASP bankers, Irish cops, flailing journalists, lawyers with few scruples and politicians with less.

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