4. The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Wolfe coined the term “Masters of the Universe” to describe WASP bond trader Sherman McCoy, the protagonist of this sprawling, satirical novel that has been called the quintessential novel of the 1980s. McCoy is sitting at the top of the world when greed, arrogance, and recklessness conspire to destroy everything he worked for. He is deserted by his wife, colleagues, and friends. Even the mistress McCoy tried to protect turns against him. McCoy’s life unravels against a society in almost complete collapse. The satire targets Wall Street, greed, racism, snobbery, the media, and the justice system with equal cynicism. Wolfe’s genius is making funny a world so corrupt and cynical that it still has the power to shock three decades later.
Takeaways: Arrogance is a financial professional’s worst enemy. Humility is the best antidote to arrogance. No individual or institution can survive fearless satire.
Quotation: “How the stories circulated on every campus! If you weren’t making $250,000 a year within five years, then you were either grossly stupid or grossly lazy. That was the word. By age 30, $500,000–and that sum had the taint of the mediocre. By age forty you were either making a million a year or you were timid and incompetent. Make it now! That motto burned in every heart, like myocarditis.”