The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16 - "Tawkin Irish" and Chapter 17 - "The Favor Bank"


As Chapter 16 opens, Detectives Martin and Goldberg are pleased as punch. Sherman's suspicious evasiveness, combined with the testimony of the garage attendant, leads the men to belive that they have found their man in the Lamb case. Not only do they have a solid lead in a media-saturated case, the men are on the verge of hauling in the catch of the decade, The Great White Defendant.

As the DA office talks about this development, Larry Kramer reflects on Irish machismo, a mule-like stubbornness (the Irish call themselves "donkeys") that has become the preferred personality of the department. Kramer believes that the other ethnicities in the department -- African-Americans, Italians, Jews, etc. -- all aspire to be pig-headed and courageous, like the Irish, and he is no exception. Meanwhile, Martin and Goldberg relate their interview with Sherman to Bernie Fitzgibbon, chief of the Homicide Division of the DA's office. They humorously describe Sherman's arrogance and inept evasiveness.

Down on Reade Street, Sherman waits for Thomas Killian in the offices of Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel. Under the florescent lighting and surrounding by defendants of all colors and creeds but his own, Sherman is totally uncomfortable. He begins to realize that this world he is now mired in has always existed, and that his power and prestige are meaningless here.

When Sherman meets Killian, he's a bit surprised at the lawyer's extremely dapper appearance. Killian, after clearly stating his fee, points out Sherman's errors one by one. Especially crucial, it seems, is his failure to contact Killian sooner, before the police arrived. They turn to the case, and Killian suggests that Maria will betray Sherman. He wants a signed statement from Maria that she was driving the car, and though Sherman says that he will attempt to get it, he seems still chivalrous (or stupid) enough to put his faith in Maria. Killian, who once worked as an ADA, also impresses upon Sherman his importance to the DA office as a Great White Defendant.

In Chapter 17, DA Abe Weiss meets with his assistants about the Lamb case. Larry Kramer is excited to be in on this important meeting, and tries hard to impress the DA. He feels that he is connected to The Power. Weiss' main concern is improving the DA office's press -- especially the jingle going around that "Weiss Justice is White Justice" -- so while they still lack the evidence to go after Sherman McCoy, Weiss' plan is to bring Sherman's picture to Henry Lamb in the hospital, where Lamb might identify him. Of course, Lamb is in a coma, so the plan isn't a good one. Weiss also takes Kramer to task for his gruff manner with Mrs. Lamb, and Kramer protests that Reverend Bacon twisted his words on that occassion.

On Friday afternoon, Judy and Campbell McCoy and the servants drive out to the weekend house in Long Island, as is their custom, and Sherman stays behind, saying that he has to work late. He tries to locate Maria and cannot, so he consults Killian, who suggests that Maria is preparing to betray him. Sherman continues to resist this possibility, though he's quite distraught. Killian emphasizes how important it is to prove that Maria was behind the wheel. He even suggests that Sherman meet her while wearing a wire. Sherman, ever noble, can't conceive of such a deception, but agrees to try to get her to talk to Killian as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Killian reassures him somewhat by making it clear how connected he is in the DA office (as a former ADA himself). Many in that office owe Killian favors, so Killian has a good chance of getting Sherman special treatment.

Elsewhere, Al Vogel continues to play Peter Fallow for all he's worth. They meet at a "pompous and stiff-necked" Chinese restaurant, where Vogel steers Peter toward a new angle in the story: the supposed negligence of the hospital. Peter shakes off his qualms about playing Vogel's stooge and decides to go ahead with this story.

In Larry Kramer's office, a call comes in from the Legal Aid defense of Roland Auburn. Roland is in custody on drug charges, and says he's willing to give his testimony of the Henry Lamb case in exchange for a lighter sentence. Roland says he was the other man with Henry Lamb the night he was hit by the car.


Though he still harbors an aversion to familiarity from non-W.A.S.P.s, it is dawning on Sherman just how much smarter people like Killian are than he. Killian ensures this rude awakening when he makes Sherman's colossal blunder with the police clear. Sherman could have avoided the whole ordeal if he had simply talked to Killian before the cops. Not only this, but Sherman also learns that Killian went to Yale Law School. If an Irish "sharpie" like Killian went to Yale, Sherman thinks, then is there any difference anymore between "us" and "them"? Sherman's naivete on this point may strain credibility -- Sherman couldn't have gone to Yale without knowing that non-W.A.S.P.s were among him -- but it emphasizes Wolfe's (perhaps personally-motivated) point that American higher education has shifted somewhat from emphasizing W.A.S.P. "legacies" to rewarding shrewd "sharpies" of all ethnicities. In short, not only is Killian smarter than he is, he's just as pedigreed too. Sherman thus comes to see the extent of his insularity.

Kramer's sycophantic yes-saying in the DA's office show just what a creature of The Power he is. Full of hatred for his ethnicity and his low-status, Kramer wishes to be a part of something meaningful at any cost. His role as Sherman's doppleganger (double) grows clearer as we learn that he too is living beyond his means, trying to support a mistress (Shelly Thomas). However, as in earlier chapters, the similarities between Sherman and Larry end at the surface. Their personalities are mirror-images. If Sherman is an out-of-control arrogant man who needs to learn his insignificance, Larry is all too aware of his insignificance and needs to learn pride in himself. Wolfe leans heavily on stereotypes (the haughty W.A.S.P. versus the self-loathing Jew) but manages to suggest that masculine pursuits of money, status, women and power can spring from diametrically opposite emotional states.

A similar gift for doubling appears as the detectives relate Sherman's bumbling attempts at prevarication from their own perspective. Sherman, who thought himself so clearly above the two men, is as transparent as tissue paper. He is patently ridiculous in the eyes of a couple of street-wise cops, who thus come off as much more well-adjusted and clear-sighted than the Park Avenue Master of the Universe. While Sherman deserves their every barb, note that Wolfe is able to garner sympathy for Sherman even as he mocks him. Sherman's helpless childishness evokes more pity than scorn in the reader, especially now that it's clear that Sherman is on the way to learning humility.

A third parallel in these chapters involves that of DA Weiss with Reverend Bacon. Both men are skilled manipulators of the media, and are far more interested in favorable public opinion and the attendant glory than they are in the ostensible social causes they represent. The personal similarities between the Jewish District Attorney and the African-American minister are great; they merely operate in different spheres.

Killian's exposition of The Favor Bank, like the earlier explanations of the backlogged Bronx justice system and the search for the Great White Defendant, illustrates the extent to which the legal world opporates according to arbitrary (hardly "just") patterns of favoritism. It's very obvious by now that the justice system obeys power, not any abstract ideal of fairness before the law, but Wolfe hammers the point home in his colorful and broad way.

In Sherman's case, The Great White Defendant priority will trump The Favor Bank, not because The Favor Bank isn't an important part of New York law, but because the political timbre of the hour insists upon prosecuting a white man. Wolfe wishes us to see Sherman as caught in a struggle of competing corruption, and to begin to feel a bit sorry for the guy, scum though he may be. Sherman is Wolfe's Lamb (pardon the pun): a not-so-innocent-but-innocent-enough sacrifice to a ravenous race-baiting media. Whether you wish to agree with Wolfe is, of course, up to you.