The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 18 - "Shuhmun" and Chapter 19 - "Donkey Loyalty"


Roland Auburn, accompanied by his Legal Aid lawyer, Cecil Hayden, tells Larry Kramer his side of the Henry Lamb story in order to get out of a drug charge. Kramer notes Roland's athletic physique and street-wise bearing (we walks with the "pimp roll," a swaggar affected by black youth that Larry believes will undermine Roland's credibility as a witness).

As Roland tells the story, he ran into Henry walking to the Texas Fried Chicken restaurant near Bruckner Boulevard. The two young men were not friends because Henry was kept at home most of the time by his mother and didn't engage in criminal activities. (Roland, on the other hand, has been arrested three times already and has earned the media tag "The Crack King of Evergreen Avenue," one of DA Weiss' inspirations.) Roland says that as they were crossing Bruckner Boulevard, they saw the Mercedes. He recalls that the car was driving along the shoulder when it hit Henry. At first Henry said only his arm was hurt. The car stopped, and Roland asked the driver for help and told him that his friend was hurt. Roland accurately describes Sherman and Maria and says that he heard Maria refer to "Shuh-mun." He says that the white people were scared of him, and the woman got into the driver's seat and drove them both away.

When Roland is shown a picture of Sherman and Judy, he identifies Sherman but says that the woman with Sherman was younger and a "hot ticket."

Roland continues his story, saying he took Henry in a gypsy cab to the hospital. Roland knew the driver, a man called Curly Kale. Roland didn't go in with Henry, but took him to the door of the emergency room, and then left. Roland was afraid of being caught by the police if he stayed with Henry. He didn't know of any injuries aside from the hurt wrist. This information is enough for Kramer to make a deal with Roland's lawyer.

In Chapter 19, the change in fortunes in the case of The Great White Defendant reflects well on Kramer. The DA addresses him directly and calls him by name, now, when before he had only sent information through the Homicide Chief, Bernie Fitzgibbon. When the three meet on Monday, they discuss their evidence and decide that the testimony of Dan the garage attendant and the positive ID from Roland is enough to go on. Bernie worries about the suitability of the witness, and Kramer protests that Roland is a solid witness and that they should go forward.

Meanwhile, the spread in Architectural Digest of the McCoy's apartment has come back to haunt them. DA Weiss spots the pictures and envisions a high-profile and dramatic "Park Avenue arrest" at the McCoy's. His plan is foiled, however, as Thomas Killian has already secured a guarantee from fellow-Irishman Bernie Fitzgibbon that the arrest will be made as quietly as possible. Fitzgibbon respects this request out of "Donkey Loyalty" -- solidarity between the New York Irish. Frustrated by this missed opportunity at media attention, Weiss privately plans to make things as difficult as he can for Sherman following the arrest.


With Roland's testimony, Wolfe provides the first major differing account of the accident. The differences are quite stark. Roland provides a different location, Bruckner Boulevard rather than the ramp back onto the freeway; a different account of when Henry was hit; a different account of the offer/request for help, "Yo, you need some help?" versus "My friend needs help"; and a different reason for the car's stopping, in response to hitting Henry rather than to a tire in the road. Note that Roland's account, like the expected false testimony of Maria, places Sherman in the driver's seat at the time of the incident.

Because the original account of the accident is relatively straight-forward, the reader naturally mistrusts Roland's story. He may well be attempting to cover up for his impulse at the time: to rob Sherman and Maria. This possibility gains creedence as Wolfe reveals Sherman's criminal history. Again, Wolfe emphasizes that the actual event does not matter. What matters is how the event is told in court -- that is the only "truth" or "reality" that bears consequence at this point. Right now, things look bad for Sherman.

The Architectural Digest story, which Sherman was opposed to from the start, either due to dignity or haughty superiority or both, has had the exact opposite effect that Judy intended. Whereas she hoped that the story would further her career as a designer and announce to "society" that the McCoy's had arrived, the pictures only serve to illustrate the extent of Sherman's hubris. They work against him, highlighting the extent to which he lived a privileged, out-of-touch life before the Lamb incident brought him to justice. One senses again Wolfe's subtle way of shifting blame to the female characters in the book. Judy's garish bad taste and naive desire for celebrity has put Sherman -- who was against such displays in the first place -- in a tough spot with Weiss and the media. It's telling how our failure to know Judy outside of Sherman's perspective builds sympathy for Sherman. Perhaps if her point-of-view were clearer, and her character more three-dimensional, it would be more difficult to root for her husband.

Larry continues to suffer from his inferiority complex, but he seems to be changing into a more assertive man before our very eyes. The importance attached to the Lamb case, coupled with his relentless desire to impress (and eventually to bed) Shelly Thomas, leads Larry to play the "justice" game more aggressively than we're used to seeing in him. Specifically, he shows no second thoughts about promoting Roland as a credible witness (even though he himself had misgivings about Roland's credibility upon first meeting the youth) and moving full-steam-ahead on the Lamb case. Larry is learning to act out of self-interest, not just out of cringing fear. Again, he seems to be a sort of pivot-point for Sherman in this regard. As Sherman falls, Larry rises; as Sherman grows unsure of himself, Larry grows confident. They're like two children on a see-saw.

Finally, the sketch of Cecil Hayden is a sad commentary on the lack of opportunities (as Wolfe sees things) for black attorneys in New York City. Black defendants, we are told, want white lawyers, not black ones, so even a good, smart lawyer like Hayden has few options. Wolfe thus attempts to show how both blacks and whites manipulate racism for advantages. Roland's preference for a white lawyer is playing the system, just like Reverend Bacon's power and prestige rely upon "proving" that New York is racist to the core and that he is necessary.