The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 22 - "Styrofoam Peanuts" and Chapter 23 - "Inside the Cavity"


Sherman can't sleep. He's overwhelmed with fears about his coming incarceration, despite Killian's reassurances. He watches his daughter sleep and wonders at her innocence even as he's obsessed with his own guilt, then he crawls back into bed -- alone, Judy is sleeping elsewhere -- and tries to get some rest. He goes through the events of the following day in his head: he'll be picked up by the detectives at 7:30 AM, taken to Central Booking and put in a holding pen. Then he will post the agreed-upon $10,000 bond and walk free.

In the morning at breakfast Judy and Sherman cannot speak to each other. Finally, when it is time to go, Judy walks Sherman to the door and tells him, "Be brave -- remember who you are." She tries to be encouraging, but she just looks tired.

Downstairs, Sherman is handcuffed and Killian, Sherman, and the detectives get into Detective Martin's car. Detective Martin's child has left Styrofoam peanuts all over the back seat and they cover Sherman's clothing. The policemen tell Killian that DA Weiss wouldn't allow Bernie Fitzgibbon to honor his "contract," and that the media will be there to photograph Sherman as he is booked. Killian blows up because he went through trouble to secure Sherman's cooperation only to have the "contract" violated.

It has begun to rain, and outside the door that leads to Central Booking is a long line of criminals waiting to be processed. The press has arrived in force; they mob Sherman and Killian, requesting comments. Killian angrily tells the mob that this is a "circus arrest" and tries to get Sherman to the head of the line. It's impossible, as DA Weiss has insisted that Sherman get no special treatment. Sherman recognizes Peter Fallow's name from the accusatory pieces in The City Light. Wet, and covered with Styrofoam peanuts, Sherman looks less like Park Avenue than Bruckner Boulevard in the press photos. This later angers DA Weiss, who would have preferred pictures of a slick-looking rich white man rather than a bedraggled sad sack.

Finally, Sherman is booked, photographed, and fingerprinted. The arresting officers remove his belt and shoelaces, which causes him to lose his shoes. Sherman has to go through the metal detector repeatedly because he has so many silver fillings that it goes off every time. Detective Martin asks the booking officer if Sherman could sit at a desk rather than in the holding pen, but DA Weiss has left word that there is to be no special treatment. Sherman briefly feels a wave of gratitude to Detective Martin, but this quickly passes into fear of what's to come in the holding pen.

In the holding cell, the prisoners taunt Sherman. A drunken man vomits and is hosed down. The other prisoners question Sherman about his charges, and Sherman fabricates charges to make himself look tough. Just as a man is threatening to steal his jacket, Sherman is called upstairs.

In front of the judge at the arraignment, Larry Kramer, acting under orders from DA Weiss, tries get bail raised to $250,000. Kramer cites the community pressure and media interest in the case as his reasons, but Judge Kovitzky reminds him that public opinion doesn't drive court decisions. The bail is set at $10,000, as previously agreed upon, and Sherman is freed. Despairing, Sherman contemplates the double-barrelled shotgun he has at home, and wonders if it will fit in his mouth.

In Chapter 23, Kramer meets with DA Weiss, who praises his courtroom performance and refers to the artist's sketch of Kramer that was shown on the news. Kramer recalls the beautiful Italian court artist and wonders at the powerful sexual effect Italian women have on him. DA Weiss approves of the media coverage, especially Peter Fallow's lurid piece in The City Light. The press lambasts Sherman and speculates on the "foxy brunette" (Maria) who was in the car with him. Kramer leaves the meeting on good terms with Weiss and personally happy that a W.A.S.P. like Sherman is now getting a taste of the real world.

Sherman, understandably, is miserable. His life seems to have collapsed around him and he recalls the findings of a Spanish brain physiologist, Jose M. R. Delgado, who argues that the mind is much how the Amazonian Bororo Indians have asserted that it is; an open cavity connected to every other human brain. Sherman feels that the world -- the particularly ugly world of the justice system and the press -- is rooting around in the open cavity of his mind.

The press tries to contact Sherman incessantly and Sherman feels friendless aside from his father and Killian. Rawlie Thorpe, an old school chum, offers support, but Sherman is not comforted. Sherman's attempt to resume business-as-usual goes awry when the press hounds him at Campbell's bus stop. Enraged, Sherman pushes a reported; the reported immediately accuses him of assault and Campbell begins crying.

Fallow at The City Light gets a hold of a picture of Sherman "assaulting" the reporter and decides to publish it. We learn that Fallow has done well for himself with this story -- he has received a raise and is in his boss' good graces. Fallow also decides to give Vogel Reverend Bacon's private telephone number. He owes Vogel a favor after the story.


Sherman is almost totally alone -- and he knows it. He sleeps alone on the night before his arrest, he stands alone (aside from his lawyer) in the line to Central Booking, and he waits alone in the holding pen. He himself, the Master of the Universe who thought of himself so highly, has disappeared into a media metaphor for an evil white snob. No matter how foolish and arrogant Sherman has behaved, it's hard not to feel as though he is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. This is precisely what Wolfe would like us to feel -- that though Sherman is flawed, those flaws are endemic to greater social forces, and he is after all redeemable.

Judy, on the other hand, might be another story. Her only appearance in these chapters, when she tells Sherman to "Be brave" and "remember who [he is]," strikes the reader as hopelessly out-of-touch. Perhaps Judy feels that Sherman's only chance now is to adopt the arrogant attitude that took him so far in bond trading, but the reader may well feel that Judy has yet to acknowledge the extent of Sherman's fall from grace. She feels perhaps that he still has social leverage, when in fact his past "social leverage" seems to be working against him. Once again, Wolfe leaves Judy a mystery. Whereas we are granted clear access to Sherman's every anxiety, his every complexity, we are left to interpret Judy vaguely as elitist and clueless. If such is the case, it's Wolfe's failing, not Judy's.

From the novel's beginning, it has been apparent that characters act largely in accordance with racial or ethnic interests. The Jewish District Attorney Weiss seems no different. His refusal to honor Killian's and Fitzgibbon's "contract" is an example of how the media-crazy DA handles things differently than the Irish who used to run the city's legal system. The Irish "Donkey Loyalty" that protected W.A.S.P.s in the past seems to have lapsed. As Jews and Italians supplant the Irish on the police force, such old-fashioned codes of honor no longer apply -- what matters instead is media image, as captured in Weiss and Kramer. Wolfe's 1980s New York is, to a great degree, a Jewish New York (even a self-loathing Jewish New York), with a Jewish mayor a Jewish man running Pierce & Pierce and a Jewish DA. Needless to say, these are not flattering portraits, and Wolfe perhaps covers himself from charges of anti-Semitism (though the reader will judge for him or herself as to the effectiveness of his cover) with a sparkling example of a Jewish judge, Judge Kovitzky.

Meanwhile, Wolfe offers a harrowing portrait of the dehumanizing nature of the Bronx Central Booking office -- and if that's bad, imagine how horrible the prisons must be! Sherman is certainly receiving a view of things from the other side. To quote a prisoner's gratuitous reminder, "This ain't Park Avenue." Which is another way of saying, "We're not in Kansas anymore."