The Collected Stories of Thomas Wolfe
Tom Wolfe’s Questioning the Nature of Dishonesty
The world that we live in is governed by a certain reality: when events take place, the fact that they happened becomes an absolute truth. Human beings, however, have the freedom to skew that truth by lying. Why, and under what conditions, would we be dishonest about things that have happened? This is one of the many questions that Tom Wolfe addresses in his novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Wolfe satirizes 1980s New York City using stereotypes and exaggeration. Many of Wolfe’s characters are willing to disregard the truth if it serves their own selfish needs. Because these characters represent the society of that era, Wolfe is conveying the idea that the denizens of 1980s New York City are more than willing to twist the truth when it suits them. Furthermore, even individuals who originally intend to stick to the truth will be forced to stray from it as a consequence of all the other corruption. Sometimes what is considered “true” can be so far from actual fact that truth becomes almost irrelevant. Consequently, he who sets out to abide by the truth must, at times, disregard it in the name of practicality. In essence, New York has become a place where everyone must eventually, in one way or another, discount the truth.
A character who discounts the truth from the very beginning of the novel is Peter Fallow, a British reporter. When Fallow first hears about the Lamb case, he begins to construct a story around it. He includes details that he knows to be false, such as the fact that Henry Lamb was an honor student. He also declares questionable evidence to be absolutely true, and exaggerates facts. He is unsure as to whether or not the story he is printing is true, but he prints it nevertheless because he knows it will bring him fame and recognition. His own selfish needs override any concern for the truth. Wolfe uses Fallow to represent the media of the time as a whole, thereby conveying the idea that the media is an untruthful institution. The newspapers are more concerned with sales than with truth, so they take Fallow’s story at face value, without bothering to check his story. This demonstrates how one person’s disregard for the truth can create a snowballing problem, eventually corrupting society as a whole. The media in New York is a shining example of how dishonesty and self-interest can breed a culture of deceit.
Two other figures who put self-interest before truth are District Attorney Abe Weiss, and the Mayor. Both characters, in response to the Lamb case, only take actions that will bring them the respect of the people, regardless of whether these actions are founded in truth and justice. These two characters are representatives of the politicians of the time, who are only concerned with the election. Their actions in the Lamb case are governed by what they think the people want. For example, before the Lamb case becomes a hot topic, Weiss plans on giving it up due to lack of evidence. When the people start attacking his office for failing to take action, however, Weiss changes his position and loses his concern for the truth, because he wants to please the people and get elected. This is another example of how a corrupt society can corrupt individual people, as it does Weiss and the Mayor. In Wolfe’s estimation, the public figures in 1980s New York City are acting only out of concern for their campaigns, and not based on their desire to uphold fact and morality.
Sherman McCoy’s development is another example of how New Yorkers must often to stray from morality in order to survive. An innocent man, Sherman is accused of having run over a young black male, Henry Lamb. Because of the racial nature of this case, the entire city is easily convinced of Sherman’s guilt. While an innocent should ordinarily be able to prove himself simply by telling the truth, the residents of New York are so egocentric and accustomed to disregarding the truth that one must play by their immoral rules even in order to prove oneself innocent. Essentially, Sherman is forced to lie in the name of the truth, telling a falsehood about a piece of evidence in order to get himself off the hook: “Sherman sat down to learn the manly art of entrapment. ‘Not entrapment,’ he said to himself. ‘Truth’” (Wolfe, 572). Even though Sherman knows that it is wrong to lie, he assures himself that it is acceptable in the name of the greater justice. Here, Wolfe is demonstrating that even the most honest man must eventually sink to the level of the dishonest public. Even though Sherman originally intends to stick to the truth, his corruption represents the impossibility of wading through the city’s sinfulness unscathed.
Does Wolfe, then, believe that it is entirely impossible for New Yorkers to maintain a concern for the truth? The only character who actually holds on to his appreciation for the truth is Judge Kovitsky. Kovitsky is originally portrayed as a powerful man, willing to stand up to criminals who are taunting him by spitting on them. In the end of the novel, he is given the task of making the final decision about Sherman’s guilt. Even though he is pressured by the public both in and out of the courtroom, Kovitsky stands by his beliefs and the tenets of the law. He even attacks Larry Kramer, the prosecutor:
What makes you think you can come before the bench waving a banner of community pressure? The law is not a creature of the few or of the many….Those that come into courtrooms waving banners lose their arms! (Wolfe, 648)
Kovitsky is swayed by Sherman’s case and believes that he is telling the truth, so he throws out the indictment. Even though doing this is in his best interests, he places the truth before his own needs. After he makes his judgment, the courtroom is stormed by angry people, and he and Sherman are almost killed. Here, Wolfe is expressing the belief that it takes more than a single honest man to overcome the sinfulness of New York City, and that to perpetuate the ideal of truthfulness leaves one vulnerable to attack.
In “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, Wolfe creates an image of a New York City populated by individuals who unfailingly put themselves before their morals. Even those who want to be honest are forced to conform to the dishonesty of the culture. In this society, it’s not enough to want to be honest; one must have backbone and tenacity, like Kovistky. Perhaps this is why the ’80s were dubbed “The Me Decade”; everyone put themselves before anything else. In the end, we must ask: does Wolfe think that there is hope for New York? Maybe, if people make a concerted effort to put an end to their egocentrism and realize that they live in a society. Then, and only then, will the truth be accorded the proper respect.
Inner Feline Demons: Wolfe’s “The Child by Tiger”
Muscles tensed, nostrils flared, the beautiful feline creature eyes its soon-to-be prey, a harmless antelope drinking from the watering hole. Without a moment of hesitation, the black and orange striped tiger breaks out into a full stride and pounces on its victim, tearing the defenseless antelope to bloody shreds with its razor sharp teeth, and powerful bone crushing bite. This tiger, resting at the top of the animal food chain, is a seasoned predator. Thomas Wolfe’s “The Child by Tiger,” set in the Deep South in the early 1930s, addresses the predatory nature of mankind, contemplating the existence of an inner “tiger” in all men and women. The story begins with the narrator reflecting on African American Dick Prosser’s rampage, twenty-five years after the event occurs. The story reveals, through the exemplary case of Dick, that hostile social environments can ignorantly drive men and women to commit unfathomable crimes that unleash their inner “tigers.”
Dick faces constant adversity due to his racist social environment, which slowly causes his inner tiger to surface. A motif of “darkness” appears in the last paragraph (Wolfe 657). Indeed, this motif reveals that Dick has always had a dark passenger, or an inner tiger. Dick, a “token of the other side of man’s dark soul,” is a staunch representation of a fundamental evil, the evil that develops from the mere experience of life. This evil, which plagues all who experience life, is embedded so deeply into Dick’s “soul” in particular, that he physically becomes a “token,” or a tangible representation of this evil (657). However, Dick’s malevolent nature does not become apparent to all until he is pushed too far by his social context, causing him to unleash his “unknown demon,” by committing horrific and satanic evils, namely murder. Furthermore, the repetition of “silence” in the first paragraph, infers that Dick originally tries to silence his emerging inner evil. His efforts, however, are fruitless, as he ultimately embraces his animalistic and natural “demon,” succumbing to the evil that matures out of his harsh experiences in life.
The town, with its deep-seated racism, unknowingly pushes Dick to his breaking point. Throughout the narrative there is a repetition of “mystery” surrounding Dick and the reasons for his rampage. The community members truly believe the motive for Dick’s rampage to be a “mystery,” illustrated by the repetition of the word, however, from an outside perspective, it is quite evident that the discriminative policies of the community pushed him to these extremes. “No one ever knew” why Dick snapped (656). The community members at the time were clearly unware of how racism, which was commonplace in their society, formed a harsh social environment for African-Americans, including Dick. It remained a “wonder” how their own derogatory treatment of Dick could push him to a murderous rampage (656).
In truth, the community does not even see their treatment of Dick and other African-Americans as “derogatory,” rather their racist beliefs were so significant that they felt their treatment of African-Americans as less-than-humans was fair and deserved. These racist beliefs of the society are also perpetuated by a mob mentality that is evident within the community, as individuals are scared to speak out against the racism, scared to speak out against the mainstream belief of the “mob.” The town’s racism ultimately causes Dick releases his inner tiger in his attack on the town because of the horrible social conditions he endured, mainly the racism from the members of the town.
Dick’s situation provides an example of how a discriminative social context can drive men and women to commit heinous acts of terror, to release their inner “tiger,” or predator. Dick constantly faces adversity in a bigoted society which actively works against him. This hardship even pushes him to extreme measures, particularly when he unleashes his ever-present inner darkness on an entire town in the form of a mass murder. The townspeople unsuspectingly cause Dick’s evil to surface; they are, in a certain sense, responsible for his rampage on the town. Thus, Dick is not similar to a tiger feasting on a harmless antelope. Rather, Dick is a tiger feasting on an entire society full of tigers, whose inner darkness manifests itself in the horrible atrocity of racism. Perhaps the point can be more broadly applied to society as a collective whole: appearances can be deceiving. The existence of the tiger is ubiquitous; each and every human carries around this tiger, like a dark passenger rooted in secrecy, cloaked in a veil of disguise.
Perspective in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and “The Near and Far”
Through the use of contrasting structure and perspective, Thomas Wolfe’s stories “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and “The Far and Near” work in collaboration to explore the relationship between the modernist concepts of isolation in society and the ultimately undefinable existential fulfillment that man seeks. Both stories feature characters that find comfort in the idea connection, which they actively seek out and cultivate; the stranger in Brooklyn wishes to “know” the area, much to the first person narrator’s dismay. The train engineer protagonist in “The Far and Near” finds a lifetime’s worth of comfort in the imaginary connection he forges with two strangers. Although neither story contains an uplifting conclusion, Wolfe’s treatment of the quest for fulfillment remains positive, indicating the continued worth of existential goals.
The first person narrator in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” provides the audience with an initial sense of authenticity; a superficial reading may lend itself to an interpretation of the colloquialisms and familiarity of the narrator as evidence of his every-man quality. However, the narrator’s tendency to speak in absolutes, such as his firm belief that “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat known Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1332) are evidence that he serves as a metaphor for convention, aiming to dissuade the stranger with whom he speaks from pursuing progressive interests, such as finding existential fulfillment in life.
Although neither character is able to eloquently explain his beliefs or behaviors, the stranger’s inability to explain the optimism in his actions beyond such casual claims as “I like duh sound of duh name,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) portrays him favorably. The narrator is negatively characterized in comparison. When asked why the stranger should not go to Red Hook, his response, “It’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334,) focuses on negative action and stagnancy, the antithesis of the metaphorical progress the stranger wishes to make. His stubbornness is repeatedly recalled through his numerous exclamations- “A map! Red Hook! Jesus!” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334)- which indicate his unwillingness to process or consider the new perspective that the stranger, a representative of the modernist interpretation of man, offers. He is portrayed as crass, swearing and using religious expletives, in contrast to the stranger’s easy going attitude.
The narrator’s argument against the stranger’s desire to simply explore the city is centered on the claim that one cannot ever really know anything (here, a neighborhood) in simply one lifetime. He underscores the stranger’s incompetence by questioning, How’d yuh know deh was such a place… if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) Here, Wolfe draws attention to the modernist redefinition of a quest; prior to the movement, goals in literature were primarily achievement based. Modernist works, in contrast, typically feature characters on quests for existential fulfillment which can only be achieved through unknowable, intangible means. Continuing to serve as a metaphor for convention, the narrator is aghast that the stranger wants to pursue a goal which he superficially views as impossible.
The question, “How’d yuh know deh was such a place… if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) also introduces the concept of isolation in society, a direct obstacle to the stranger’s goal of “knowing” Brooklyn, a metaphor for existential fulfillment through human connection and relationships. The narrator repeatedly calls into question the credentials of the two men with whom he speaks, effectively highlighting their alienation in society. He asks the first man who attempts to help the stranger, “How long you been livin’ heah?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) only to promptly discount the man’s answer and retort that man’s connection to the area is irrelevant, mocking that the man “can tell me t’ings about this town day nobody else has eveh hoid of, either,” ((“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333.) He later directly shuts down the stranger’s as well, saying “I been livin’ heah all my life… an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it…” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334.) His snappy, condescending remarks emphasize again the impossibility of the goal of the stranger, but through them, Wolfe also creates a direct connection between the impossibility of this goal and the isolation from the society around them that modernist writers felt was prevalent in society.
The narrator and the stranger’s discussion about swimming and drowning is a final metaphor for the social isolation that the stranger wishes to alleviate. The stranger directly poses the question, “what becomes of people after dey’ve drowned out heah?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1335) to the narrator, an unusual technique employed by Wolfe. By having the stranger directly present this metaphor to the narrator, only for the narrator to take it at face value, “yuh can’t drown i Brooklin,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1335,) he solidifies the disconnect between the convention that the narrator represents and the modernist angst that the stranger feels.
In place of a dialogue over the course of only a few minutes between two strangers of opposing views, Wolfe switches to a third person narrative in “The Far and the Near,” chronicling one working class man as he finds and then loses a meaningful connection to society, which he claims is the “most extraordinary happiness he had ever known,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336.) This shift in structure builds upon themes of isolation and existential fulfillment first presented in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” which leaves the stranger’s quest for fulfillment unresolved. In “The Far and the Near,” the train engineer believes he has managed to find true happiness in a relationship he forges with a mother and daughter over the span of twenty years, seemingly confirming the validity of the stranger’s quest to form a connection with the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. However, upon meeting the women, the engineer ultimately realizes this connection was entirely imagined and “that small good universe of hope’s desire,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338) that he had found is ruined.
Just as the controversial map in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” is a symbol of the man’s desire to connect with society, this desire is symbolized through the train in “The Far and the Near,” which serves as the literal vessel that brings the women and the train engineer together. On a secondary level, the train can be interpreted as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, which spurred society into the frantic, capitalistic pace that distresses modernists. The train brings the man and women together, causing him to believe “that he knew their lives completely,” (“The Far and the Near” 1337) but the connection it forges is false, merely a superficial connection between two strangers. Technological advances in the Industrial Revolution, including the automotive, resulted in increased communication and subsequent “connection” between people the world over, but it is possible that here Wolfe is commenting on the depth and validity of this connection. When the train passes by the quaint house in which the women live, the “heavy bellowing puffs of smoke” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) that it emits contrast against the picturesque description of the fruits, vegetables, and “white board…with green blinds,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) of the area. The man seeks comfort and escape through that which the train brings him, but the train disrupts the natural beauty of the area, just as it killed numerous individuals in the four accidents the engineer witness (“The Far and the Near” 1336.)
Echoing the stranger and the narrator of “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” the engineer is similarly unable to define what it is that he finds in his connection with the women. The third person narrator uses vague diction to describe the engineer’s feelings- “something beautiful… something beyond all change and ruin…and something that would always be the same,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) but there is a subtle narrative power just lines before this description that points out that the image of the “women waving to him became fixed in the mind of the engineer,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) foreshadowing to the audience the illegitimacy of this connection, implied to be a mere fixation.
The impossibility of achieving existential fulfillment first posited by the narrator in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” is exemplified by the crushing climax of “The Far and Near.” Upon attempting to solidify his connection with the little town and the women, the engineer feels acute isolation, referring to the experience twice as a dream, which he goes so far as to call “ugly” (“The Far and the Near” 1337.) He attempts to fight against this disillusionment, but the “act of hope and tenderness seem[s] shameful to him,” (“The Far and the Near” 1337,) again recalling the attempts of the narrator in the previous story to mock and discredit the optimism of the stranger as impertinent naivety.
The engineer’s conclusion, that “suddenly he knew that he was an only man…now sick with doubt and horror,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338) further confirms the previous narrator’s claim that it would take a lifetime to achieve existential happiness, “an’ even den [in death] yuh wouldn’t know it all,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338.) The engineer’s experience, however, does not indicate the worthlessness of an attempt to find existential happiness. If anything, it would seem that it successfully demonstrates that complex emotional connections can provide this happiness.