THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES

By Tom Wolfe

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 659 pp. $19.95

IT'S AN odd and eerie coincidence, but coincidence pure and simple, that the same literary publishing house that last summer produced Scott Turow's immensely successful Presumed Innocent has now brought out a strikingly similar novel that is likely to enjoy strikingly similar popularity. The Bonfire of the Vanities, the first work of fiction by the journalist Tom Wolfe, bears little stylistic resemblance to Turow's novel, but its texture and themes border on the identical: each book is set in the underside of metropolitan life, each is centrally concerned with the imperfect workings of justice, and each is about a man who, in Wolfe's phrase, is "heading for a collision with the real world." Each, moreover, is an unusually accomplished and richly entertaining book -- popular fiction that manages, because of its essential seriousness, to attain a higher level.

The Bonfire of the Vanities has its origins in a serial that Wolfe wrote some years ago for Rolling Stone magazine, but readers who remember it should be advised that Wolfe has greatly altered, expanded and improved upon the first version; the Rolling Stone pieces were intended as something of a tour de force -- a 20th-century bow to the Victorian serial novel -- but The Bonfire of the Vanities is a polished, cohesive, expansive book that stands entirely on its own. There is, to be sure, a certain amount of preening in it, both stylistic and reportorial -- Wolfe cannot resist his new-journalistic ruffles and flourishes, and at times his immersion in the low life looks for all the world like slumming -- but weighed against the book's many virtues these excesses are entirely forgivable.

It's a populous book, with a half-dozen characters who take turns occupying the limelight and a supporting cast of dozens, but at its center is Sherman McCoy: "Still young . . . thirty-eight years old . . . tall . . . almost six-one . . . terrific posture . . . terrific to the point of imperious . . . as imperious as his daddy, the Lion of Dunning Sponget . . . 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 drawings by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin, if you want to know what Sherman thought. He was a Yale man himself."

A most successful Yale man. Sherman is "the number one bond salesman, 'the biggest producer,' as the phrase went, in the bond trading room of Pierce & Pierce on the fiftieth floor, and he loved the very roar of the storm." His annual income is around and about $1 million, and he lives accordingly, in a huge Park Avenue apartment -- "Yes; White Manhattan, the sanctuary of the East Seventies" -- with his wife, Judy, with whom he no longer seems to have much in common, and his daughter, Campbell: "Six years old; so guileless; a little girl who loves flowers and rabbits." On the side he has Maria, the young wife of a septuagenarian financier, who dispenses her favors in a rent-controlled apartment not far from Sherman's Park Avenue haven.

It's the perfect life; Sherman watches Campbell playing with her futuristic dolls, Masters of the Universe, and fancies himself to be one too: "On Wall Street he and a few others -- how many? -- three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? -- had become precisely what . . . Masters of the Universe. There was . . . no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul. He was no fool. Yet he couldn't get it out of his head." But one evening the Master of the Universe is driving his Mercedes through the Bronx with his mistress in the passenger seat, having picked her up at the airport, when suddenly, quite unannounced, the perfect life falls to pieces.

"The guy hit the wrong kind of kid in the wrong part of town driving the wrong brand of car with the wrong woman, not his wife, in the bucket seat next to him": that is how, many pages later, one character succinctly summarizes the case. Sherman McCoy did not go out looking for trouble, but trouble managed to find him. Now, through no fault of anyone except fate, Sherman is where he had never expected to be: the wrong side of the law. More than that, he is in the center of a media circus, "wired into the vast, incalculable circuit of radio and television and newspapers," because he is a prosecutor's dream, "the Great White Defendant," a spectacular alternative to the "eternal prosecution of the blacks and Latins" that is the unhappy lot of the Bronx District Attorney's Office.

That is how Sherman is seen by Lawrence Kramer, the assistant district attorney into whose lap the McCoy case falls. For him it is the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to emerge "from the anonymous ooze" by prosecuting a Master of the Universe. But Kramer is hardly alone in seeing hay to be made from the case. For his boss, District Attorney Abe Weiss, running for re-election in a borough 70 percent black and Latin, it offers the perfect occasion to score points by nailing a prosperous white. For the Rev. Reginald Bacon, a charismatic and cynical black leader, it provides an excuse to intensify racial antagonisms and to gain air time on the evening news. For Peter Fallow, a boozy and equally cynical British journalist working for a tabloid newspaper, it may be the story that will launch a career.

SO IT IS that all these people and many more converge upon McCoy, vultures hell-bent on picking his bones. How they go about doing so is the meat of Wolfe's tale, which has much less to do with the private agony of Sherman McCoy than with the workings of that infinitely complex piece of human machinery called New York City. It is a tale that moves from the dining salons of the gold coast to the detention cells of the Bronx, from the paneled offices of Wall Street to the tense streets of Harlem, and that does so with remarkable ease and confidence. Unblinkingly, Wolfe examines the economic and racial divisions that set the city against itself, and he spares no one in exploring the causes and manifestations of those divisions; The Bonfire of the Vanities is a tough book, and just about anyone who cares to will find reason to take offense at it.

But the particular targets of Wolfe's scorn are the pampered and endlessly self-indulgent rich, insulated by their money from "those people," the ordinary citizens of the city. There are many brilliant and hilarious set-pieces in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but none is more brilliant or more hilarious than an elaborate dinner party at a lavish town house, a party at which those in attendance are interested in nothing except putting themselves on display and figuring out what profitable use they can make of their companions. It is toward the vanity of these people that the most intense heat of Wolfe's bonfire is directed, and he torches them to the quick.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is many things: a satire of privileged Manhattan and its ill-gotten riches, a mordant examination of criminal justice and the extraneous influences that pervert it, a sardonic contemplation of ambition and avarice and their unanticipated consequences, a sympathetic portrait of the "decent people" into whose lives the powerful can unexpectedly intrude. Not merely does the novel treat all these themes, but it does so through characters who are unfailingly convincing, interesting and uncaricatured. Though the novel's ending is rather strained and inconclusive -- the same, oddly enough, can be said of Presumed Innocent -- that is of little consequence. What matters most is that The Bonfire of the Vanities is a superb human comedy and the first novel ever to get contemporary New York, in all its arrogance and shame and heterogeneity and insularity, exactly right.