I'd read quite a few reviews of Tom Wolfe's books, which were generally enthusiastic, yet somehow they hadn't much made me want to sample them. The publishers' blurbs had much the same effect; I thought the books would be shallow and trendy. But when I finally got round to making the experiment I found I enjoyed them a lot. Like 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', this new novel is wide in scope, with a large cast of characters, all of whose lives are connected, directly or indirectly, with a Southern property developer and one-time college football star called Charlie Croker. Croker, who is turning 60, has made a vast fortune and has recently married a beautiful young second wife, but he has over-reached himself financially and everything is beginning to fall apart. Much of the book is taken up with Croker's attempts to persuade the bank to extend his credit. But there are also several sub-plots interwoven in the story, the most notable of which concerns Conrad Hensley, a young employee of Croker's who finds himself in jail as the result of a series of accidents and whose life is transformed by reading an account of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
As usual with Wolfe, there are numerous comic set-pieces and the dialogue is wonderful; Wolfe catches the intonations of his characters' voices perfectly and he uses an astonishing range of slang, some of which is all but impenetrable to a non-American reader.
In 'Bonfire of the Vanities' all the characters, almost without exception, were unsympathetic. This is a rather gentler book in some ways: Conrad Hensley behaves genuinely heroically on several occasions and at the end even Charlie Croker is semi-redeemed, so that the book could be read on one level as a morality fable. Perhaps the ending is a little hard to believe, but then America is a vast country where almost anything can and does happen.
This book left me feeling I wanted to read more of Wolfe's work, which I suppose is the ultimate test.