Literary Mixtape | The Bonfire of the Vanities

Do you ever want a modern soundtrack to literary fiction? Yes? Me too. That’s the point of this feature. Whereas some people imagine cinematic montages in their head, I create a soundtrack.

Okay, so I actually do both, but I prefer to share my soundtrack.

Bonfire of the Vanities

I read The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe for the first time almost a year ago. I revisited it over the last week because I genuinely enjoyed the book and because I love the ‘80s (as long as I don’t have to relive them), though it bears noting I did not read it again. I skimmed – Tom Wolfe is a verbose fellow. I generally forgive him because he’s the undisputed king of glib smartasses. That being said, and despite the fact that I do like it, there’s not a lot for women to love in this book (say if one was looking for a finely drawn female character). However, if you enjoy watching men being egotistical fools, this book is for you.

The Bonfire of the Vanities offers a colorful portrait of the 1980s; it is the “quintessential novel” of that decade. May brown lipstick forever rest in peace…

01. Dedicated Follower of Fashion / The Kinks

Looking at Sherman McCoy , hunched over like that and dressed the way he was, in his checked shirt, khaki pants, and leather boating moccasins, you would never guess what an imposing figure he usually cut. Still young… thirty-eight years old… tall… almost six-one… terrific posture… terrific to the point of imperious… 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 drawing by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin, if you want to know what Sherman though. He was a Yale man himself. But at this moment his entire appearance was supposed to say: “I’m only going out to walk the dog.”

02. Sweet Mistreater / Bessie Smith

“You’re lying!” She gave him a hideous smile. “And you’re a rotten liar. And you’re a rotten person. You think you’re so swell, and you’re so cheap. You’re lying, aren’t you?”

“I’m not lying. I swear to God, I took Marshall for a walk, and I came back in here, and wham, I mean, I hardly know to say, because I truly don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re asking me to prove a negative proposition.”

(He’s lying.)

03. Pocketful of Money / Jens Lekman

And what would he do then? I’m already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up in his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000. But he had to pay out $21,000 a month for th $1.8 million loan he had taken out on the apartment. What was $21,000 a month to someone making a million a year? That was the way he had thought at the time – and in fact, it was merely a crushing, grinding burden – that was all!

04. Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk / Frank Zappa

“What insidious little trouble makes in her class had been spreading this poison? So far as Sherman knew, Campbell still believed in Santa Claus, and here she was, beginning to question the existence of God! And yet… it was a precocious question for a six year old, wasn’t it? No two ways about it. To think that such a speculation – “But what if there isn’t!? She was annoyed. Asking for the history of the question was no answer.
“But there is a God, sweetie. So I can’t tell you about ‘if there isn’t’”. Sherman tried never to lie to her. But this time he felt it was the prudent course. He had hoped to never discuss religion with her. They had begun sending her to Sunday school as St. James’ Episcopal Church… That was the way you tool care of religion. You enrolled that at St. James’ and you avoided talking or think about religion again.

05. Everybody Wants You / Billy Squier

Sherman resumed his walk toward First Avenue in a state of agitation. It was in the air! It was a wave! Everywhere! Inescapable! … Sex! … There for the taking! … It walked down the street, as bold as you please! … It was splashed all over the shops! If you were a young man and halfway alive, what chance did you have? … Technically, he had been unfaithful to his wife. Well, sure… but who could remain monogamous with this, this, this tidal wave of concupiscence rolling across the world? Christ almighty! A Master of the Universe couldn’t be a saint, after all…

06. Rough Boy / ZZ Top

Two figures! Two young men – black – on the ramp, coming up behind him… Boston Celtics!… The one nearest to him had on a silvery basketball warm-up jacket with CELTICS written across the chest… He was no more than four or five steps away… powerfully built… His jacket was open… a white t-shirt… tremendous chest muscles… a square face… wide jaws… a wide mouth… What was that look? Hunter! Predator! … The youth stared Sherman right in the eye…walking slowly…The other one was tall but skinny, with a long neck, a narrow face…a delicate face…eyes wide open…startled…He looked terrified..He wore a big loose sweater…He was a step or two behind the big one…

What are they ding on the ramp? Haven’t done anything – haven’t threatened. But they will! Just be nice. Are you insane? Do something! Act! A sound filled his skull, the sound of a rushing stream. He held the tire up in front of his of chest. Now!

07. The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest / Bob Dylan

They reached the exit. He held on for dear life, as if a tornado were going to rise up at any moment and blow them out of the proper groove and – back to the Bronx!

08. Bulletproof — La Roux

He was not merely a Master of the Universe; he was more; he was a man. Grinning and humming. “Show me but ten what are stouthearted men,” the stouthearted man, still damp from the fray, walked the two blocks to his duplex apartment overlooking the street of dreams.

08. There Is a War / Leonard Cohen

“Oh, I think it’s an intrinsically important story. But, you know, they’re very sensitive about this sort of thing. If we did a story about life in the white council flats, that would be all right, but I don’t think there are any white council flats in New York. This is a very delicate area and one that’s causing me some concern just now.  We’re already getting some rumblings from these organizations, accusing The City Light of being anti-minority, to use their term. Now, it’s all right to be a white newspaper – what could be more pure white than the Times? – but it’s quite another thing to pick up that reputation. That makes a great many people uneasy, including, I might say, advertisers. I received a letter the other day from some outfit calling itself the Third World Anti-Defamation League.” He dragged out the term anti-defamation as if it were the most ludicrous concoction imaginable.

09. My Career as a Homewrecker / Jonathan Richman

He hadn’t thought he would be able to face the television screen, and yet he turned it on. The vilification poured forth from every channel. Prominent Wall Street investment banker, top echelon at Pierce & Pierce, socialite, prep school, Yale, spoiled son of the former general partner of Dunning Sponget & Leach, the Wall Street law firm, in his $60,000 Mercedes sports roadster (now and extra $10,000), with a foxy brunette who was not his wife and not anything like his wife and who makes his wife look dowdy by comparison, runs over an exemplary son of the deserving poor, a young honor student who grew up in the housing projects, and flees in his fancy car without so much as a moment’s pity, let alone hel, for his victim, who now lies death.

10. Boys Don’t Cry / The Cure

He looked at his daughter and tried to feel the pangs, but it was an intellectual exercise. It was all so sad and heavy, heavy, heavy.

11. You’re So Vain / Carly Simon

It was a sunny day this time, a balmy day in June. The air was so light it seemed pure and refreshing, even here in the Bronx. A perfect day, in short; Sherman took it badly. He took it personally. How very heartless! How could Nature, Fate – God – contrive such a sublime production for his hour of misery? Heartlessness  on all sides.

12. Wanted Dead or Alive / Bon Jovi

“I have nothing to do with Wall Street and Park Avenue. I’m a professional defendant. I’ve undergone a year of legal harassment, and I’ll undergo another – or perhaps 8 1/3 to 25.”

Occasionally I can’t find quotes to match songs that I want to include…(suggestions are always welcome, but I feel like that’s asking an awful lot from my small readership). And conversely, occasionally I can’t find songs for particular quotes, I would’ve loved to have thought of something for “Bullshit reigns.”.

13. Blue Monday / New Order
14. Rich Girls / The Virgins
15. Police & Thieves / The Clash
16. Runnin’ Out of Fools / Aretha Franklin

What’s your quintessential song of the ’80s (mine is Tainted Love)? Have you read The Bonfire of the Vanities? Anyone see the positively dreadful film adaptation?

PS: I’m open to suggestions for my next literary mixtape. I’m not holding out any hope, as this feature is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I’m listening…

21 thoughts on “Literary Mixtape | The Bonfire of the Vanities

  1. The 80s were pure pop for me – Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club were at the top of my list but also Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Olivia Newton John and lots of Australian bands you’ve probably never heard of! The song that stands out in my memory? When Madonna released Like a Virgin – we were outwardly shocked, inwardly loving it.


    1. I remember Like a Virgin, but it never shocked me. I think I was too young, plus my mom was super liberal and never shielded me from anything.

      Cyndi Lauper and Olivia Newton-John (I wanted to be her)!

      I listened to a lot of Tears for Fears, REM, The Cure, Fleetwood Mac…(still young enough to have listened to the same stuff as my mother)


  2. Oh the 80’s!! It’s Like a Virgin for me too. On a retreat with the Catholic youth group and Sister Jean coming into the dorm while we are singing and dancing to Like a Virgin and she sang and danced along with us. We were both mortified and delighted.
    Also, Wham! My husband claims to have spent a summer hanging out with the girl who lived next door to Andrew Ridgele. Call it my “fourth degree of separation” from George Michael.
    I guess I should read Bonfire of the Vanities 😉


  3. My quintessential 80s tune? It would be terribly copycat-ish to say “Tainted Love” as well (but OMG, “Tainted Love”!) I think I’ll go with “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order.


    1. It may be terribly copycat-ish, but it would also be terribly awesome – that song is pure ’80s. There’s also Sweet Dreams / Eurythmics.


    1. Perhaps a lovely question with too many answers? I love the ’80s so long as the fashion from that era stops popping up. Except for jellies, I would love a pair of jellies. I just don’t know where I would wear them…


  4. This is a little off topic, but I LOVE You’re So Vain- I used to rock out to it when I was a little kid and would sing “the wife of a postman” instead of “wife of a close friend.” Which actually totally makes sense- if you’re going to have an affair the wife of a postman would work, since his schedule would be quite predictable.


    1. Off topic is perfect. Sort of related, I used to think Stong Enough by Sherly Crow was a morally wrong song (I had been living in a super Catholic household for some time) and was shocked when she said “lie to me”.

      Oddly enough, when I was younger and living with my Mom I had no trouble with Madonna or Jimi Hendrix. It’s all about context I guess…


  5. I love the quotes you used! And I was just saying to Laura over at Reading in Bed, that I don’t know how you guys come up with these great songs for books. It would take me forever to come up with anything. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    There are so many good 80s songs to choose from. The artists that come to mind, that my sister and I had albums of, are Cyndi Lauper, Wham, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Bryan Adams. How about Summer of ’69? That one’s in my head, because now my son loves it. I don’t know how he feels about his mother knowing all the words.


    1. You know, I’ve never heard of Wham and you’re not the first person to mention them – I’ll have to check them out.

      And thank you. I tend to think of the songs when I’m reading and then put a little note in to margin to remind me. Yes, I’m a book defiler.

      He should feel awesome about it. I’ll begrudgingly admit my parents had pretty decent taste in music (most of the time) and I appreciate that now, even if I didn’t as a child.


  6. Hmmmmm…

    Tears For Fears – Everybody Wants To Rule The World (for the first Masters of the universe ref/when Sherman’s getting his shoes shined at work and thinking about the Giscard)

    Prince – When Doves Cry (JUST BECAUSE, but maybe when whatsherface-mistress’ husband dies at the restaurant – I picture him face down in the soup while the English alcoholic journalist finishes his meal?)

    Sting – Englishman In New York – might be edging the 90s with this one, but the bit set in the English bar where Tom details how the Brits invite an American to the table every night and leave one by one stiffing him with the bill…)


    1. Sting is about perfect. It was ’87, same year as the book. The limiting thing about this series is that it is limited (great word choice, I know) to music I listen or have listened to, at one point or another, so Sting doesn’t pop up too often.

      And this is probably more than you would ever want to know about me, but my mom made a soundtrack for her labor and I was born to Tears For Fears – Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Somehow that is just not very fitting.

      (Also – glad to know you’re still around, at least a little bit)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: