The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 20 - "Calls from Above" and Chapter 21 - "The Fabulous Koala"


Sherman, once the golden boy of Pierce & Pierce, has been summoned to his boss's office. Gene Lopwitz, who Sherman considers to be a vulgar man, is a Jewish-American Anglophile. His passion for all things British led him to construct a working fireplace on the fiftieth floor of a modern office tower on Wall Street. This enormous undertaking has given Lopwitz insects bites on a sensitive part of his anatomy: they hitched a ride on some logs and attacked the head of the firm.

Just as the meeting begins, an obese opera singer, Bobby Shafflett, calls Gene, who has lent the star-of-the-moment (who knows from the Bavardages' party) his private jet. Sherman waits while Gene schmoozes. Finally, Gene hangs up and berates Sherman for his poor work performance. Sherman, again feeling the same need for confession that he felt in Freddy Button's office, holds back because of Lopwitz's reputation as a shameless gossip.

Tommy Killian has been frantic to get in contact with Sherman, and while in the meeting with Lopwitz Sherman receives word of Killian on the phone. Sherman walks out of Lopwitz' office to take the call, a disrespectful act that does not bode well at all. On the phone, Killian informs Sherman that he will be arrested the following morning. He tells his client that the arrest will go smoothly, which hardly reassures Sherman, who agrees to meet Killian that afternoon.

Sherman returns to Lopwitz's office and explains the matter. Gene has no sympathy for Sherman and informs him that Sherman must go on a leave of absence immediately. Sherman tries to calculate whether he and his family will be able to survive on the money he has saved. He dreads having to come clean about the situation, especially to his daughter, Campbell.

In Chapter 21, Sherman withdraws $10,000 cash from his bank that, which he will need for bail money. The Bank Secrecy Act requires that banks report cash transactions which exceed $10,000. Sherman feels the extent of his trouble, his imminent fall from grace, and the beginning of his financial straits.

Sherman then goes to his father, John Campbell McCoy, known in his day as the Lion of Dunning, Sponget & Leach. Sherman venerates his father, whom he thinks of more as an allegory for strength and unchanging respectability than as a man. Sherman downplays the more sordid details, calling his relationship with Maria a "flirtation." The elder McCoy is shocked that Sherman confided in Freddy Button before him, and disapproves of his advice to retain Thomas Killian as a lawyer. Nevertheless, he promises Sherman parental support. He asks how Judy is holding up and is aghast that Sherman hasn't told her yet.

At home, Sherman brings Judy into the library with every intention of disclosing the incident, but he tries to hide the seriousness of his affair with Maria, which Judy calls him out on. Sherman has lost all credibility in her eyes, between his long-standing deceptiveness and his failure to be honest even on the eve of his arrest. Judy shows no sympathy.

Sherman then enters Campbell's perfectly furnished room. Oblivious to her luxuriant surroundings, Campbell reads Sherman a book she made starring a koala who comes to New York and jumps into a window to avoid a dog; the koala thus sets off a burglar alarm, summoning police cars. Sherman reads this tale as a premonition of his arrest. He then turns to the coming arrest. Sherman explains that people are out to hurt him and she mustn't believe the bad things they say about him. Campbell embraces her father and tells him that she loves him, and at that moment Sherman feels that Campbell's innocence is lost.


In Gene Lopwitz, Wolfe presents another caricature whose manias (Anglophilia, jogging, homey office furnishings, celebrities) capture the insular pettiness of the Wall Street elite. He serves to remind Sherman once again that he is not an irreplacable "Master of the Universe," but merely a cog in the machine. Gene has no qualms about letting him go to the wolves.

Despite Killian's assurances that things will go smoothly -- based largely on his faith in The Favor Bank -- these chapters read as a litany of the things Sherman is set up to lose. Of course the episode with Lopwitz shows how Sherman is well on his way to losing his cushy job and the ludicrous luxary that could have been his (Sherman could have been a Lopwitz one day, we are sure.). Similarly, Sherman's poignant final visit to the bank emphasizes that such transactions -- huge cash withdrawals with respectful and eager bank staff -- will soon be a thing of the past. His financial security is as tenuous as his job. Finally, Sherman's beautiful home and family, so exquisitely furnished and maintained, is only his for another evening. Everything is coming to a head.

Particularly touching is the episode with Campbell, who (despite bearing an aggressively fashionable eighties name) is not at all responsible for the events in the book. She seems unaware of her privileges, able to be a remarkably imaginative child almost in spite of the trendiness of her upbringing. Sherman has never been able to connect with her -- even about trivial things like Santa Claus -- and now that communicating with his daughter is the most important thing in the world, his failure to cultivate their relationship shows itself to be among the greatest failures of his life. He can't even appreciate her imagination without reading into a story of a koala an allegory of his imminent arrest and imprisonment.

Of course, Sherman himself is to blame for his collapse. His reckless hubris and his failures of communication with everyone who could have potentially loved and protected him -- including his father, his wife, his daughter -- are glaringly clear. Sherman was so sure of himself -- such a "Sure Man" -- that he lost all sense of his vulnerability. This reflects his former overbearing personality, of course, but it also seems endemic to the 1980s. John McCoy, though hardly perfect, is a much steadier, much more modest and sensible man. Sherman rose in the eighties -- the "Me" decade -- and he will fall as he rose, alone.

It's almost unnecessary to continue pointing out the Dickensian name games, but John McCoy's firm is full of them: Dunning - to "dun" someone out of money; Sponget - to "sponge" money off someone; and Leach - to "leech." In addition, the secretary that John shares with the other older partners is called Miss Needleman - in that she needles the old men she works for, or needles other men on the telephone.