The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 10 - "Saturday's Saturnine Lunchtime" and Chapter 11 - "The Words on the Floor"


Sherman, Judy, and Campbell, vacationing at their home in Southampton, Long Island, sit at an outdoor table at their beach club with Sherman's parents, John Campbell and Celeste McCoy ("Sixty-five years old and still beautiful," thinks her son). Sherman, still fretting about the accident and the Giscard deal, gains some relief as he watches his daughter play in the sand in a location he remembers well from his own childhood.

His daughter's friend teases her about what her father does for a living, so Campbell asks Sherman what he does at work; he is hard pressed to answer her. Judy chimes in, likening the profits of a bond salesman to the gathering up of crumbs when a big cake is cut up. The implication is that Sherman, though he makes a lot of money, doesn't make anything himself -- he doesn't produce anything. Campbell cries and in retaliation Sherman mocks Judy's interior decorating business. Celeste and John are very uncomfortable.

Back in Manhattan we join the Kramers. As their last chance to go out before the nurse's four-week tenure is up, Rhoda and Larry go to lunch with friends in SoHo. Larry, consumed with jealousy for his friend, watches for a chance to one-up him or make eyes at his girlfriend. He acts like a macho prosecutor from the tough Bronx, but this backfires and he feels that Rhoda is patronizing him. Larry escapes into fantasies of the Girl with Brown Lipstick.

In Chapter 11, Sherman has regained some of his focus and concentrates on the upcoming Giscard deal. He has managed to stifle his paranoia enough to read the news of the world in the Times instead of rushing instantly for the local crime news in The City Light.

Looking to close the Giscard deal, Sherman takes an extremely important phone call from France. While on the phone, however, he notices that Felix, the shoeshine man's, paper contains an article about the Henry Lamb accident. Sherman tries to read the article and conduct business simultaneously -- he notices an editorial about "white justice," criticizing the DA's office for failing to pursue the case, and a mention of a Mercedes-Benz with the beginning of his license plate number. Distraught, he slips up on the phone and blows the Giscard deal.

In the Bronx, Kramer reads the negative press about the Lamb case. Fallow's article directly accuses Kramer of dragging his feet and not pursuing the matter properly. DA Weiss is furious and homicide chief Bernie Fitzgibbons instructs Kramer to work harder on the Lamb case.

At The City Light, Fallow boasts of his triumphant visit to the Bronx and the interview he had with Annie Lamb. He freely exaggerates to make himself more heroic in the eyes of his colleagues, neglecting to inform them that Al Vogel put him on the story in the first place. (Vogel, by the way, has narrowed down the possible vehicles in the Lamb accident from 2,500 to 124 through a contact at the DMV. Vogel promises Fallow the exclusive on this information if he will continue putting pressure on the DA.)

Meanwhile, Larry Kramer takes Shelly Thomas, the Girl with Brown Lipstick, to dinner at a restaurant he can't really afford. She listens to his egocentric account of his manly career prosecuting violent offenders, and Larry thinks things are going well. The problem remains, however, of where to take her for some time alone. He cannot take her to his apartment, obviously, and she lives with her parent in Riverdale.

In Maria's hideaway, Maria and Sherman discuss the accident. Sherman is as ready as ever to go to the police, but Maria insists that they do nothing. A large Hasidic Jewish man interrupts them and accuses Maria of illegally subletting the hideaway. Sherman tries to appease the man, but Maria violently shouts him down and chases him off, leaving Sherman uneasy about her instinct to face down conflict.


Like the McCoys' life in general, their Long Island retreat is superficially idyllic and deeply dysfunctional. Roped off from the less privileged in an exclusive beach resort, Sherman proves once again incapable of relating to his daughter, Judy describes Sherman's career in unflattering terms, and Sherman's awkward and uncommunicative parents suffer through it all. The tension between Judy and Sherman, caused by his foolish phone call, has not abated. Campbell, meanwhile, is confused and happy. Though the child merely wishes for an answer to an innocent question, her parents use her as a conduit for their passive-aggressive bickering.

The pattern that Wolfe has established of comparing Sherman's world of privilege with Larry's world of middle-class discontent continues. We move from lunch with the McCoys to lunch with the Kramers -- and the latter event is no less passive-aggressive. Larry's typical concerns -- with social status, money, and his masculinity -- once again rule the day. His attempt to "sell" his job as macho, followed by a retreat into fantasies about the Girl with Brown Lipstick when this fails, illustrate his impotent, frustrated approach to life in general. Later, when Larry finally has his chance with Shelly, he continues to use her almost therapeutically, balming his ego with lies about his "dangerous" profession. She continues to exist as fantasy -- as utterly absent aside from her prettiness and usefulness for Larry.

Indeed, though Wolfe consistently gives his two-dimensional female characters a "purpose" -- that is, he shows their two-dimensionality as following from the perspective of shallow and mendacious men like Sherman and Larry -- one might wonder about Wolfe's ability to write women characters. Though his men are flawed, at least we are given insight into their desires and anxieties, however childish. Larry's crisis of masculinity and Sherman's anxiety over money and the accident make these characters somewhat understandable almost despite themselves. The women in the novel, however, are given almost no depth. They act either inscrutably -- like Maria's insistence on secrecy and confrontation -- or spitefully -- as in Judy and Rhonda's passive-aggressive prodding of their respective husbands. Perhaps these shallow man-woman relationships are more than an indictment of the shallow men and women in the book; perhaps instead they are a result of Wolfe's lack of interest in developing believable women.

Meanwhile, Fallow continues to reveal the oiliness of his character. Clearly, he is Vogel's pawn -- a set-up man for the big pay-off Vogel expects to receive in a civil suit. Needless to say, he has no interest in reporting facts; he bends and embellishes every detail of the story to help foment racial unrest. He and his editors have a cynical interest in "decrying" New York's racist society, and he enjoys the Lamb story both as an opportunity for a scoop and for sanctimonious posturing.

Wolfe delights in little structural tricks like putting Sherman's personal financial fall in the aptly-named Chapter 11 -- an allusion, of course, to bankruptcy. Such details call attention to the extent to which Wolfe has neatly structured his tale, just as he has carefully named his characters (in a way that suggests Charles Dickens) to expose their personalities and roles in the narrative. Many events in the novel, from the ludicrously important Giscard deal (which can be blown in a single phone call), are driven by unlikely coincidences. Sherman just happens to learn about the Lamb case just as he can ensure his own financial ruin? Thus the novel can feel "over-structured" at times, as though we are reading a cartoonish embellishment of racial unrest and W.A.S.P. finances (not unlike something that a journalist might write -- not a Fallow, perhaps, but a subtler and smarter specimen of the same breed).

This self-consciousness is part of what makes reading Wolfe so fun -- and somewhat frustrating. Perhaps Bonfire of the Vanities is not intended to be taken too seriously even as it explores some very serious and very real social anxieties. Perhaps Wolfe intends these coincidences and superficial tricks to reflect the superficiality, self-consciousness and "constructedness" of 1980s New York City. Or both; or neither.