This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
August 3, 1985
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Delirious New York
Review of Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, and In Search of New York: A Special Issue of Dissent, edited by Jim Sleeper.
Excerpted from the November 28, 1987 Issue
We live in this imaginary city, a novel that needs a rewrite, where the only politicians not in jail probably ought to be, except for Ruth Messinger, and all of them are Democrats; where the unions don’t care, and the schools don’t work, and the cops deal drugs, and the Mayor has his own foreign policy, and I can’t leave home without stepping over the body of a runaway or a derelict. We didn’t elect Felix Rohatyn to anything, but the Municipal Assistance Corporation is more important than the City Council. Nor did we vote for Steinbrenner, Trump or the rest of the bullies and crybabies who bray on our battlements and wave the bloody pennants of their imperial omophagous selves; and because none of these heroes ever takes the subway, there’s no one to shoot them. Maybe we need Jeremiah more than we need Tom Wolfe or a bunch of disappointed intellectuals.
But Wolfe and Dissent have written their New York City novels anyway. Wolfe, the parajournalist, looks pretty much the same as always, still grinning at us out of the nimbus of his double-breasted signature white suit, a vanilla-colored Mau Mau. Dissent, on the other hand, has had a format face-lift and for the first time in thirty-three years you can read the socialist quarterly without an O.E.D. magnifying glass. In both their novels, the underclass is the stuff of dreams, the return of the repressed, a history-making black magic. They disagree, of course, on whether this is a good thing. Listen to Wolfe: “You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge…. Do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?”
Dissent wants this very same Third World—2.5 million “newcomers” since 1965—to be an energizing principle. In diversity we’ve always found our jumping beans. From the abrasions of culture on culture, we rub up a public philosophy and a civic space. Surely these new immigrants, this ethnic muscle, will rescue us from a mood grown “sullen, as if in contempt of earlier feelings and visions” and “a peculiar kind of social nastiness” (Irving Howe); a “trained incapacity to see the city as a human environment, or as anything more than a machine for generating money” (Marshall Berman); “a way of life that is not much better than jungle warfare” (Ada Louise Huxtable); and “a world devised in its entirety by Dostoevski’s Smerdyakov” (Paula Fox).