NEW YORK -- Literature has been defined as news that stays news. Tom Wolfe's crackling new novel, ''The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' is being avidly read -- actually, gulped -- here and in Washington and elsewhere where news is devoured. The best seller reverberates with subjects in today's news. However, it also touches passionately on perennial themes that will give it staying power.
In its fullness, its fascination with a city and social classes and the movements of money and morals, and in its capacity to convey and provoke indignation, the novel is Victorian, even Dickensian. Yet in its themes and characters, it is as contemporary as this autumn's headlines.
''Bonfire'' is Wolfe back where he belongs, in the take-no-prisoners rambunctiousness of his earlier books about abstract art, modern architecture and the ''radical chic'' politics of limousine liberals. His protagonist is Sherman McCoy, 38, bond-trader supreme and, in his eyes, ''Master of the Universe.'' It is a shattering story of total loss of mastery when McCoy and his mistress get lost in his Mercedes in the moonscape of the South Bronx and, roaring away from a fracas with two young blacks, fatally injure one of them. McCoy becomes what the white elected district attorney of the Bronx desperately desires: the Great White Defendant.
There is, as in Dickens, a cartoon quality to some characters and episodes, such as the dinner given by a ''social X-ray'' (''an impeccably emaciated woman'') who is ''this year's hostess of the century.'' And there is a nouvelle cuisine restaurant serving ''veal Boogie Woogie'' -- rectangles of veal, squares of spiced apples and lines of pure'ed walnuts arranged like Mondrian's painting ''Broadway Boogie Woogie.''
But Wolfe's depiction of the processing of human raw material in the criminal justice system is hair-curlingly faithful to fact. And there is a ring of truth in the episode when a journalist asked a Bronx high school teacher if the injured boy was an ''outstanding'' student and the teacher replies, ''We use comparative terms, but 'outstanding' isn't one of them. The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening.''
Critics have a partial point when they complain that Wolfe's fascination with clothes and furniture suggests an inability to deal with things beneath surfaces. His strength is not the inner lives of his characters (although he chillingly conveys the emotional vertigo of a ''respectable'' person suddenly on the receiving end of the criminal law). However, Wolfe's subject is the inner life of another kind of organism, a seething city.
Besides, one of Wolfe's themes is that too much of the tone of our time is set by people like McCoy who have no stable selves, only a constantly shifting composite of elements acquired from the social environment. The class Wolfe most unsparingly describes lacks moral ballast, and Wolfe leaves hovering in the air the implication that this may be both cause and effect of the ''immense, new, inexplicable wealth,'' wealth related more to sharp practices than to real productivity.
Wolfe relies much more on his reporter's eye, a gimlet eye, than on any muse to move his pen. So did another novelist who was first a journalist: Dickens. Critics who call the result a ''conservative'' novel are more correct than perhaps they understand.
Certainly some conservative hobbyhorses get ridden hard. There are withering sketches of trendy Christians making guilt-assuaging contributions to a black clergyman-operator, a self-styled ''street socialist'' who profits handsomely from the government's racial spoils system, and journalists peddling mawkish compassion.
But Wolfe's also expresses an older, deeper, nobler conservatism that should discomfit those among today's conservatives whose philosophy is fully expressed by market-worship and getting and gaining. Wolfe casts a cold eye on the ethos of overripe capitalism as exemplified by the frenzies of people swapping paper. You may laugh aloud, then quickly wonder what is really funny, about the episode when McCoy flounders while trying to answer his 6-year-old daughter's question: ''Daddy, what do you do?''
Wolfe is wickedly amusing about, but not amused by, the sight and sound of ''the greed storm'' in a Wall Street trading room: ''the sounds of well-educated white men baying for money on the bond market.'' Flocking to Wall Street to do that is, Wolfe suggests, unworthy of ''the sons of the great universities, these legatees of Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, William James . . . inheritors of the lux and the veritas.''
''Bonfire'' is news that will stay news because a century hence readers will find preserved in it the strong flavor of some unfortunately important slices of life in our time