The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6 - "A Leader of the People" and Chapter 7 - "Catching the Fish"


As Chapter 6 opens, we see Sherman at work at Pierce and Pierce, worrying about money and the accident. He is unable to focus, and he retreats to the bathroom to read The City Light. He finds no mention of the accident and calms down somewhat.

In this chapter we learn that though Sherman is wealthy indeed, making nearly one million dollars (before taxes) per year, he still lives beyond his means. His apartment on Park Avenue was bought with a personal loan of $1.8 million, which cannot even be refinanced for the equity because "good" Park Avenue building cooperatives refuse to allow tenants to mortgage their apartments. Thus Sherman must complete the "print" (the completed transaction) of the Giscard deal to earn his bonus and pay off the personal loan. McCoy must pay $21,000 a month for the apartment, on top of extravagent daily expenses. And because Judy does not come from a wealthy family, the entire burden of this lifestyle falls on Sherman. Thus Sherman's guilt about the accident, which is affecting his job performance, compromises his entire high-status lifestyle.

Enter Edward Fiske III, a young, white, Ivy League man employed by the Episcopal Diocese of New York to handle business matters. He is in the office of Reverend Bacon (he struggles with the fact that Bacon prefers "Reverend" and not the grammatically correct "the Reverend Mr") in Harlem. Reverend Bacon has accepted $350,000 from the diocese for the construction of the Little Shepherd Day Care Center. Fiske is employed to find out how those funds have been spent, and Reverend Bacon is obstructing his efforts.

We learn that Reverend Bacon is the head of many "charitable" or "non-profit" organizations, such as the Day Care Center, the All People's Solidarity, The Open Gates Employment Coalition.... He has staffed the boards of these organizations with his cronies, many of whom are recently out of prison or still actually in prison. Fiske tries to find out from Bacon what happened to the $350,000, but the Reverend says that it's been used to reserve contractors for the Day Care Center, even though nothing has been built yet. In the background, the recorded voice of the Reverend's deceased mother, Adela Bacon, rises from a phonograph upstairs. We learn that the late Adela Bacon, a gospel recording artist, was a social activist and church leader in her day, and that she ordained her son by her authority alone.

While Fiske is in Bacon's office, Mrs. Annie Lamb, the mother of Harold Lamb, calls Bacon in hysterics. Media outlets also call Reverend Bacon several times about the riot in Harlem at the mayor's speech. It becomes clear that Bacon is a political operator in addition to his church and charitable duties. He tries to explain to Fiske the concept of "steam control," by which the white power structure placates the angry underclass African-Americans in Harlem by these charitable gifts that Bacon "redistributes" in the way he sees fit. Fiske has no headway in recovering the $350,000 and leaves in confusion.

Chapter 7 introduces Peter Fallow, a British man living in New York and working for The City Light newspaper. He awakes from a horrible hangover, as usual, to a ringing telephone. Peter agrees to be in the office soon and attempts to make himself presentable.

Peter, an alcoholic who is in debt to his coworkers and in trouble with his boss, is contemptuous of America, criticizing everything from the texture of American carpets to the rhythms of American speech. We learn that Peter was brought over by Sir Gerald Steiner, the publisher of The City Light, on false pretenses. Peter became famous writing exposés of the English upper classes; when he lost contact with an aristocractic girlfriend, and thus lost his "insider's" eye on the elites, he had no stories left. However, these stories had attracted the notice of Steiner, who offered Peter a job.

Fallow takes the subway to a British ex-patriate bar and restaurant in Manhattan, Leicester's. He spots a "fish" -- a sucker whom he might pull into conversation and then leave with the bill for the booze -- who happens to be Edward Fiske III. Fiske is easily reeled in. At the end of the evening, Fallow attempts to reel in another fish, an American magazine editor, to pay for his dinner and a bottle of his preferred French wine, "Vieux Galouches" (which translates to "old galoshes).

Meanwhile, the case of Herbert 92X is in session, and Larry is more than usually energetic in the courtroom, which "cooks Herbert 92X's goose." Of course, Larry is playing to the girl with the brown lipstick all along; that Herbert 92X has to suffer for this theatricality is purely incidental.


Sherman's financial situation sets him up as a particularly vulnerable defendant. If his income is interrupted even slightly, his entire lifestyle, and that of his wife and child, will collapse. On top of this, Sherman is haunted by his failure to go to the police immediately following the accident -- which he had wanted to do, but which Maria discouraged. Morally and financially, then, Sherman is in dire straits. The life that had seemed so secure in the earlier chapters appears ready to topple.

Edward Fiske is the perfect young, white, over-privileged idealist -- a man Sherman might have been like ten or fifteen years earlier. He considers himself to be "of the people" because he enjoys the music of the African-American gospel singer, Adela Bacon. Also, Fiske is continually duped by everyone around him. Reverend Bacon plays him like a fiddle, dodging Fiske's every effort to account for the $350,000. Fallow, too, plays Fiske, spotting the young man right away as someone who enjoys pretending to intellectualism. Fiske enjoys the "art of conversation" with Fallow, and meanwhile Fallow drinks for free.

It's apparent that Bacon is living large off of his "non-profit" money. Bacon's glib explanation of "steam control" confuses Fiske to such an extent it gets Bacon off the hook, but it's clear to the reader that Bacon is less concerned with social justice than he is with his own lifestyle. Bacon deflects criticism by alluding to systematic racism and the impossibility of improving the African American condition within "the system," but Wolfe exposes this explanation as hypocrisy as well. We learn (much later in the novel) that the $350,000 came from an African American bishop, thus complicating Bacon's narrative about the "white power structure."

Of course, a reader might want to criticize Wolfe as much as Bacon on this point. Wolfe, after all, is the mastermind in charge of the plot in the novel. It is fully within his own authorial "structural" powers to show Bacon up as a hypocrite -- and, because Bacon is clearly based on figures of power in the African American community like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to "prove" their mendacity as well. It becomes clearer as the novel progresses that Wolfe has a specific political message of his own. Whether or not you as a reader agree with this message, it's important to keep an eye on it, and not to swallow the upshots of Wolfe's story whole. (Indeed, Wolfe can be a sort of Fallow-esque fisherman-journalist himself, and I'm sure he'd appreciate a wary reader over a Fiske.)

Speaking of Fallow, his nitpicky criticisms of America, though they can be funny, reveal more about his own sour temperament than they do about his adoptive country. He appears envious of the material wealth of American society, and thus clings to his perceived superiority and wit. Of course, "Fallow" is just what his name says -- barren of everything. He isn't an aristocrat, isn't a rake, isn't a wit, isn't an intellectual. He's a poseur, and a pathetic one at that. Thus he is the bottom man in the series of frauds that we've seen -- Reverend Bacon with his phony charities, Sherman McCoy with his phony sense of superiority (for instance, considering himself a "Knickerbocker" when his family really settled in Tenessee), and Larry Kramer with his phony sense of altruism.