Is it wrong to say that Tom Wolfe is an author obsessed with money? Or more like, obsessed with money, power, vanity and sex? Which is to say he’s one of my favorite authors. Tom Wolfe writes in the prized way that great writers do: making you feel as if you know the situation, the character and the weight and intensity of their emotions as the plot unravels in each of his 600-plus-paged novels. And like Gob on the show Arrested Development, he also happens to be unable to describe a man’s suit without including the price of it ($1,800). Most notably in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man In Full, Wolfe often focuses on the details of salaries, expenses, and exact dollar amounts as they pertain to characters who are incredibly wealthy or heartbreakingly poor. There’s no denying it-Tom Wolfe writes stuff that is juicier than the drama of the The Real Housewives series. I am rapt by his descriptions of people of different socioeconomic levels, and his mastery of character for each and every person who appears in his novels. I always thought this classic inner dialogue of Sherman McCoy sounded like the same conversation we all have in our head. Enjoy!*
“I’m already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000. But he had to pay out $21,000 a month for the $1.8 million loan he had taken out to buy the apartment. What was $21,000 a month to someone making a million a year? That was the way he had thought of it at the time-and in fact, it was merely a crushing, grinding burden-that was all! It came to $252,000 a year, none of it deductible, because it was a personal loan, not a mortgage. (The cooperative boards in Good Park Avenue Buildings like his didn’t allow you to take out a mortgage on your apartment.) So, considering the taxes, it required $420,000 in income to pay the $252,000. Of the $560,000 remaining of his income last year, $44,400 was required for the apartment’s monthly maintenance fees; $116,000 for the house on Old Drover’s Mooring Lane in Southampton ($84,000 for mortgage payment and interest, $18,000 for heat, utilities, insurance and repairs, $6,000 for lawn and hedge cutting, $8,000 for taxes.[…more expenses I don’t feel like typing out…] The tab for furniture and clothes had come to about $65,000; and there was little hope of reducing that, since Judy was, after all, a decorator and had to keep things up to par. The servants…came to $62,000 a year…the abysmal truth was that he had spent more than $980,000 last year. Well, obviously he could cut down here and there-but not nearly enough-if the worst happened! -Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
*Dear Tom Wolfe: I had to use an extended quote from your book as an educational piece for my blog. Whether or not you mean to, you get personal finance way better than Suze Orman ever did. Thank you for always shedding a light on the human condition, especially the human condition of rich American city-dwellers in the late 20th century whom you believe are generally rotten, racist and prone to “rutting” with any hot young thing who will have them.