wonder, momentarily, just how Mr.nWolfe would have us pronounce thenword “talk,” if not tawk, or does henwant the “1” pronounced, too, as inntalc? Frankly, if more prudently editednon the side of bulk alone. The Bonfirenof the Vanities would make the verynzinger of a tape-recorded book. It fairlynbristles with sound effects. But in thenend, after all the hijinks have been dulynperformed and put to rest, this is annoverlarge novel of very small consequence.nIt has all the substantiality ofnspun cotton candy for the junk-foodnaddicts of the new illiteracy.nIn an interview published in thenBoston Globe (November 13, 1987),nTom Wolfe said something which maynindicate why his first novel lacks anynsubstance beyond its momentary glitternas an exciting media product. He said:n”We’re now in a period of freedomnfrom religion; we’ve long since gonenthrough freedom of religion. The lastnfreedom is to remove the internalnshackles of ethics, morality, all thosenthings. That’s been the great strugglenof the last 20 years, and that struggle’snbeen largely successful.” This is a veryncurious statement for a novelist tonElectric Logocentricity by E. Christian KopffnThe BonGie of the Vanities bynTom Wolfe, New York: Farrar,nStraus & Giroux; $19.95.nIn the beginning was the Word. Notnverbum, the written word, thoughtnErasmus, but sermo, the spoken word.nWhatever its validity for understandingnSt. John’s Gospel, literature that mattersnseems to split along the lines ofnthat dichotomy. There are exciting andnimportant books that dance on thenpage, wheeling and turning at thencommand of a master drill sergeant,nable to conquer vast terrains, but innsilence. Read Kant, for instance, aloud,nand his magic vanishes. Then there arenthe masters of the spoken language,nwho charm us because we can hearntheir voices, even if we cannot followneverything they are saying: Plato, Virgil,nDante, St. John himselfnTom Wolfe belongs to the electricnmasters of logocentricity. To this day Incan hear the famous party that pulsatesnat the center of “Radical Chic.” “Mr.nBernsteen.” “STEIN!” Of course,nthere are other sensual images innWolfe’s carnival. He begins The PaintednWord by comparing the experiencenof reading the Sunday New York Timesnnot to an intellectual activity but tonsinking slowly into a soporific hot tub.nThe image is as illuminating as it isnwitty. In the end, however, Tom Wolfenis meant to be read aloud.nIn comparison with those earliernE. Christian Kopff is professor ofnclassics at the University of Colorado.ntone poems. The Bonfire of the Vanitiesnis an oratorio sung by full choir.n”There are eight million stories in thenNaked City,” the old TV show used tonend. It seems as though there are thatnmany voices in this novel and each onenheard and captured by Wolfe like anprize Lepidoptera, to be pinned exactlynin context or, just as often, shovednviolently into a situation where itnstands out like a yuppie’s yellow tienagainst a Mafioso’s black shirt.nIt is not easy to find the right parallelnfor this epic, performed not by a bardnbut by a city of voices. The main plot isna variant on Evelyn Waugh’s Declinenand Fall, though with a surprise endingnout of Baudelaire’s “Ecrasez lesnPauvres!” (Well, I am trying not tongive it away.) The depiction of thenworking stiffs of New York, seen at firstnharshly and crudely, but then revealednas rooted in intelligence and moralncommitment, reminds me of the bestnof James Gould Cozzens. The onenreal parallel, however, seems to menJohn Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacynof Dunces. Wolfe’s novel lacks then. unforgettable hero of that comic masterpiece,nbut I left both books with mynears full of the sounds, spoken, whispered,nshouted, of a great city.nWolfe delights in playing with ansignificant linguistic reality, the use ofnthe third person singular of the verbn”to do” as a class marker in contemporarynAmerica. The educated use “hendoes not” as a matter of course, just asnthe poorer use “he don’t.” To appreciatenWolfe’s magic, however, you havento hear the intermediary sections ofnnnmake, I think, as it removes the mainnsource of tension which the drama ofnhuman relationships irresistibly compels:nI mean, of course, the moralndimension. The moderns have nowndisplaced Cardinal John Henry Newman’snsensible dictum — that we cannotnhave a sinless literature in a sinfulnworld — with the notion that a sinfulnworld itself is an illusion of the ethicist.nBut if this is the case, who gives andamn about Sherman McCoy anyway?nour society. We listen in on a D.A.ntrying to lure cooperation out of anrecalcitrant black witness. To say “hendoes not” in that room would freezenup the witness by showing that he isnconfronted by a foreigner who speaks andifferent dialect. Alone with a trustednaide, preaching on the rights of thenpoor and puffed up with altruistic selfrighteousness,nthe D.A. reverts to “hendoes not.” Future historians of AmericannEnglish will treasure this book.nEach reader will find his favoritenpart of this extravaganza. My ownnincludes the savage picture of the parasiticnEnglishman, come over to worknon the New York Post, who always slipsnaway just before the check arrives,nleaving it for the silly Yank off whomnhe wines and dines. There is thensearing contrast between elite WASPnAmerica, which leaves even its closestnfriends in the lurch if notoriety impinges,nwith the dogged loyalty and honestynof middle-class Irish lawyers and policemen.nThe student of ethics willnfind as much to ponder as the linguist.nIn the end, however, I remembernthe sounds: the laughter at an upperclassnparty, the background hysteria ofnthe bonds market on Wall Street, thenaccents of English and German, ofnrich and poor. As Browning’s FranLippo Lippi made us notice things wenhave had before us all our lives butnhave never seen, Tom Wolfe makes usnhear the sounds of our own society.nWe shall never sound the same again.nJUNE 1988139n