The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 12 - "The Last of the Great Smokers" and Chapter 13 - "The Day-Glo Eel"


The enormity of Sherman's gaffe on the telephone with his Giscard contact becomes apparent when he is offered the purchase of the bonds at $6 million dollar loss. The deal is finished, and Sherman stares down the barrel of an $1.8 million dollar personal loan that he will be unable to pay off. In full panic mode now, Sherman retreats to the bathroom to read more about the accident in The City Light. The news, of course, is not good. Fallow has maintained the sensationalist nature of the story, accusing the city of "foot-dragging," and revealing that only 124 vehicles in the city could have been involved in the accident. In desperation, Sherman decides to consult his lawyer, an innocuous, W.A.S.P.-y man in his father's firm named Freddy Button.

Button's nonchalance in the face of Sherman's travails, and his constant smoking, unnerves Sherman. However, Sherman is aching to spill his story, and tells Freddy everything. Freddy suggests that Maria may not corroborate Sherman's story and push the blame onto Sherman instead. Freddy then refers Sherman to Thomas Killian of the firm Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel, describing Killian as a shrewd criminal lawyer.

Meanwhile, Sherman misses several important transactions at his firm. In addition, he is caught lying about his whereabouts. He is becoming less and less focused on his job, even though it is absolutely essential to his financial survival, and more and more focused on his overwhelming personal problems.

Chapter 13 finds Kramer and Detectives Goldberg and Martin going to the Edgar Allen Poe housing project where Annie Lamb lives. Reverend Bacon has organized a demonstration to protest the lack of investigation into Henry's accident. Ostensibly, the detectives and Kramer are looking for witnesses to the crime, but Weiss has clearly sent them for political reasons. Kramer, ever enamored with "Irish" masculinity, watches Detective Martin, a small man, face down a large black youth for no reason other than to obtain a good parking space.

The demonstrators gather, and Larry Kramer notes the artificiality of the protest. There are several white demonstrators, and support from a gay and lesbian group. It seems less a spontaneous reaction of the people than a publicity stunt staged for television cameras.

Fallow arrives as well and is also surprised by the phony nature of the protest. The television cameras capture footage of Mrs. Lamb and Reverend Bacon, as well as misleading footage of the protest, making it seem larger and more spontaneous than it really is. The action only kicks in once the cameras are rolling. The insincerity of this "protest" depresses both Fallow and Kramer, though Fallow chalks it up to American childishness rather than social injustice. The renowned television reporter, Robert Corso, arrives, and his appearance seems to be more noteworthy than the demonstration itself.

Sherman, trying to keep up appearances, comes home early to be with his family. After his confession to Freddy Button, who counseled honesty with his wife, Sherman attempts to summon the courage to tell Judy about the accident. He looks to her for a sign of tenderness, but she has become inured to his secrecy and lack of interest in her, and she is less and less interested in what he has to say.

Sherman awkwardly admires a clay bunny that his daughter made at school, touched by his daughter's talent but unconvincing in his "family-man" role. Meanwhile, the television news informs them of the letters on the license plate that correspond to Sherman's Mercedes-Benz. Sherman jokes lightly about it, and Judy doesn't respond in any meaningful way, so he decides not to tell her -- primarily out of fear of her reaction to his infidelity.


The "Day-Glo Eel" refers to the brightly colored cables snaking out from the television vans to the cameras and microphones used to record the demonstration at the Edgar Allen Poe housing projects. The situation follows the logic of "television" reality -- not "real" reality -- with protesters assembled to be on the news or to further Bacon's political interests. Even Peter Fallow is disgusted by the protest -- and when the oiliest character in a novel criticizes an event's oiliness, that's saying something. Wolfe, a veteran reporter of all kinds of civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, knows what a real demonstration expressing the views of a group of people looks like, and he makes it clear that this "protest" is a fake. It's the 1980s version of unrest, performed for cameras and home audiences.

Meanwhile, one of the targets of these mechanizations (though few know it yet) displays the extent to which he is cut off from the gravity of his situation. Sherman clings to his insulated, privileged world like a child to a security blanket. He fails to warn his family of the coming trouble -- both financial and legal -- simply because they won't show him tenderness, as though he isn't the reason for their distance! Of course, Sherman's world was never as stable as he believed it was, and the extent to which his former life of comfort rested on a precarious financial gamble (and despite flammable racial conditions that Sherman never understood) is now quite clear.

Sherman's succession of lawyers represents in microcosm the move from a simpler, W.A.S.P.-dominated world (the world Sherman thought to be reality) to a shrewder, multi-ethnic New York. The anachronistic figure of Freddy Button, "The Last of the Great Smokers," provides a moment of humorous repose amidst all of this drama. Mr. Buttons (another blatantly Dickensian name, by the way) appears to be a person from another, more innocent time -- or perhaps from a Hollywood movie of the golden age. Buttons contrasts starkly with the actual, effectual lawyer who will handle Sherman's case. Killian, an Irish lawyer in an Italian- and Jewish-named firm, represents everything that Sherman mistrusts. Of course, the fact that Sherman's fate rests in the hands of a man whom -- simply because of his ethnic heritage -- Sherman disparages, is deeply ironic. Sherman's outdated world of Long Beach clubs and "Knickerbockers" won't help him now.

Indeed, Sherman's anachronisms are, in many ways, the root of his dilemma. If Sherman could have relaxed his prejudices anywhere along the way, he could have been saved these difficulties. If he hadn't been bound by misguided chivalry to Maria, and his own personal cowardice, he would have followed his first instinct to report the accident, thus eliminating the cover-up and making things a lot less serious in the eyes of the law. If Sherman could have interacted with the young men in the Bronx without freaking out, the accident likely wouldn't have occurred. Even now, Sherman fails to see the extent to which he rests in a tenuous racial position: he is bait for a hungry city. And as Killian illustrates, only by accepting and engaging with the "new" New York -- the 1980s New York -- and leaving the Old New York Knickerbockers for the history books, will Sherman save his life from total disaster.