Only on Wall Street could a guy named Sherman feel like He-Man.
Sherman McCoy, like so much in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece “Bonfire of the Vanities,” is near-perfect. He was the archetypal 1980s bond trader, with such delusions of superhuman powers that he saw his own image in his daughter’s plastic, muscle-bound He-Man action figures, fancying himself one of the “Masters of the Universe.”
Wolfe, who died Monday, long outlived McCoy, a denizen of Wall Street’s pre-digital age. But the character and the book represent one of the best-drawn portraits of a financier since probably Theodore Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood some 75 years earlier.
Sherman McCoy. His name sounds even whiter than one of Tom Wolfe’s suits. And that’s the point. McCoy is the white whale. And nearly every character in the book is an Ahab hoping to harpoon him: the rabble-rousing Rev. Bacon (modeled on Al Sharpton), the assistant district attorney, and the tabloid hack covering — as well as creating — the story. It is McCoy’s whiteness as much as his whaleness that is his undoing.
At the novel’s opening, McCoy seems to have it all: the beautiful wife, daughter, mistress and Park Avenue apartment. No wonder he relates to his daughter’s action figures.
They looked like Norse gods who lifted weights, and they had names such as Dracon, Ahor, Mangelred, and Blutong. They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys. Yet one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe. There was … no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul.
In another wonderful scene that’s an homage to Dickens’s “Dombey and Son,” McCoy’s daughter asks him to explain what it means to be a bond trader — and what bonds even are.
“A bond is a way of loaning people money. Let’s say you want to build a road, and it’s not a little road but a big highway, like the highway we took up to Maine last summer. Or you want to build a big hospital. Well, that requires a lot of money, more money than you could ever get by just going to a bank. So what you do is, you issue what are called bonds.”
“You build roads and hospitals, Daddy? That’s what you do?”
It only gets worse from there, when McCoy tries to explain how he earns such a good living from this enterprise. “Yes. Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that.”
In the novel, a sort of stock jobber’s book of Job, McCoy loses everything and is devoured by the city. It reads like revenge porn for anyone ever screwed over by Wall Street. Just as markets can turn south at any moment, McCoy experiences a catastrophic crash.
And yet, as the writer Michael Lewis noted in 1996, bond traders admired much about McCoy, and even fancied themselves fellow Masters of the Universe.
But the real McCoys barely made it out of the 1980s, Lewis observed. “The role of Chief Business Villain is now played not by the financier but by the C.E.O., who pays himself millions while laying off his workers.”