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'Bonfire' Rages as the Market Dives

A decade ago, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ took stock of a crashing era

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That day — the day — Tom Wolfe’s first novel was just arriving in bookstores. A 659-page indictment of ’80s avarice, The Bonfire of the Vanities evoked the ”sound of well-educated young white men baying for money” that swelled through the Reagan era. It was a timely Greek chorus: On Oct. 19, 1987, the only sound at the New York Stock Exchange was the roar of panic. The Dow plunged a record 508 points, stunning financiers who fancied themselves invincible.

Masters of the Universe, Wolfe called the breed — just one of the grand duke of New Journalists’ infectious catchphrases. Nominally the tale of a pompous Yalie bond trader’s tumble into Manhattan’s race-obsessed criminal justice system, Bonfire inspired critical comparisons to Edith Wharton and Jackie Collins — and was a hardcover best-seller for 56 weeks.

If such literary stylings weren’t obvious film fodder, Warner Bros., flush from 1989’s Batman, was suffering from its own superiority complex. Released Christmas 1990, Brian De Palma’s film was an orgy of miscasting, its production mishaps chronicled by Wall Street Journal critic Julie Salamon in her 1991 The Devil’s Candy. ”On Wall Street, in Hollywood, there was a feeling of things going out of control,” she recalls. ”It was disgusting.”

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