Atlanta and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Gary Shteyngart connects 1980s New York with contemporary Atlanta

The New Yorker doesn’t feature fiction set in Atlanta very often, but it did so this June with “The Luck of Kokura” by Gary Shteyngart. Barry Cohen, the protagonist of the story, is a hedge fund manager who flees a complicated life in Manhattan and probable insider trading charges, riding the “Hound” (Greyhound bus) to Atlanta and crashing the apartment of a former employee who lives there. “Crashing” captures the spontaneity but not the flavor of his stay, as the former employee Jeff Park lives in a “palatial” 4,000-square-foot luxury condo downtown with a “frigate-size couch” and a button-operated Lutron window shades ($350+ each), wears Lanvin sneakers ($500+) and a “seven-figure” Rolex watch, drives both a Ferrari California and a Bentley ($200,000+ apiece) and parks in special VIP zones for luxury cars. Barry’s own obsession with luxury watches seems the ultimate in conspicuous consumption in an era when time is incorporated into cell phones.  Some Atlanta-New York comparisons seem odd (how is the BeltLine like the High Line?), but a focus on Atlanta’s conspicuous consumption seems right on. As does its focus on the haves and the have-nots, those who are lucky and those who are not.

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$3490 cocktail dress, Tom Ford, Shops of Buckhead (Atlanta)
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$5.99 cocktail dress, Goodwill, Tucker (Atlanta)

Shteyngart’s opening reference to a Keith Haring painting hanging in Jeff Park’s Atlanta apartment and the premise of the financial trader in free fall immediately evoke the 1980s and, at least to me, the blockbuster novel that satirized that era, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). “Luck” takes place during the 2016 Republican convention and the characters encounter a group of Trump supporters at a bar in wealthy Buckhead; it was in the wheeling-dealing 1980s that Trump created himself , amassed his real estate fortune, published The Art of the Deal (1987), and became a tabloid celebrity. Bonfire captures a whole era of 1980s excess, especially through its extravagant dinner parties and restaurant scenes. At the socialites the Bavardages’s dinner party, for example,

there had been placed, in the middle of each table, deep within the forest of crystal and silver, a basket woven from hardened vines in a highly rustic Appalachian Handicrafts manner. Wrapped around the vines, on the outside of the basket, was a profusion of wildflowers. In the center of the basket were massed three or four dozen poppies. This faux-naif centerpiece was the trademark of Huck Thigg, the young florist, who would present the Bavardages with a bill for $3,300 for this one dinner party.

The title of the book, an allusion to a Catholic bonfire of sinful luxuries in Florence, Italy, preceding Lent in the year 1497, could refer to an impending revolt by the poor who scarcely have the bare minimum of basic life necessities and are a strong political force in the book.

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House in Buckhead (Atlanta)
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Duplex in Vine City (Atlanta)

Or it could refer to factions of excess. Bonfire takes place on a massive stage (the whole city of New York and its boroughs), from Park Avenue, with its 14-room apartments, to  the Bronx, with its single rooms in the “Edgar Allen Poe” projects. Wolfe has been compared to the nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens in scope and, like Dickens, Wolfe published the beginning of his novel in installments (in Rolling Stone), building his readership.  Bonfire is a sprawling, epic, page-turner taking on the ends of the financial spectrum in mayoral elections and the court system.  It also exposes the rapacious appetites of the press tabloids (the star reporter is a British drunken derelict), the Bronx District Attorney Office’s personnel (who will manipulate to capture the “great white defendant”), and a Harlem Reverend’s social justice organization (a money-making machine that promotes racial foment).  In that era, like ours, a piece of the truth can be blown up and hardened into something immutable for political purposes. All these conceits could be counted among the “vanities” that could be thrown into the bonfire.

Bonfire’s story really gets going when the haves and the have-nots collide after Sherman’s accidental turnoff from Triborough Bridge after he picks up his mistress Maria from the airport. The scene starts the epic descent of bond trader Sherman McCoy from his pinnacle as “Master of the Universe” to his nadir as a self-described dead person, through a hit-and-run incident involving a black youth. Here Bill Cordier, who spent his formative years in the NYC area, reads the buildup to this event:

The passage conveys sense of dislocation, shock, and panic that fuels itself towards tragedy.

Although Wolfe wrote his second novel, A Man in Full, about Atlanta, I think Bonfire better fits the bill as a classic in terms of wide readership and staying power.  Martyn Bone among others elsewhere take on A Man in Full. Appropos of both “Luck” and Bonfire, a 2018 Brookings Institute report of household income inequality in the 100 largest cities put Atlanta at the top.  Atlanta’s top 5% in household income ($306,307/year) was 18 times that of the lowest 20% ($16,927/year).  “The Luck of Kokura” can also be found in Chapter 7 of Shteyngart’s new novel Lake Success, just published in September.

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Ann Vandenberg

I have a PhD from The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. I live in Atlanta.

3 thoughts on “Atlanta and the Bonfire of the Vanities”

  1. I agree – this story does remind me to Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” as well as the one set in Atlanta. And the photos of the homes you included …such a contrast! I knew inequality was extreme in Atlanta, but I didn’t realize it was the worst city in the country.

    1. The city rankings may change from year to year, but Atlanta is among the worst. Inequality was one of my earliest impressions, from seeing the homes on West Paces Ferry and the Lexus lot at Phipps Mall where if you owned a Lexus you earned the privilege to park close to the entrance (gone from Phipps now, but exists elsewhere, as mentioned in “Luck”).

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