The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 28 - "Off to a Better Place" and Chapter 29 - "The Rendezvous"


Killian and Quigley encourage Sherman to talk to Maria while wearing a wire in order to establish that she was driving the car at the time of the accident. Sherman knows that he will be able to see her at her husband's funeral, and he's not sure that he's ever going to get to talk to her again. It takes some doing, but Killian and Quigley convince Sherman to try the wire idea.

Arthur's funeral is a lavish affair at the best funeral parlor, Harold A. Burns's on Madison Avenue. A significant number of important socialites are present. Maria, beautifully dressed in an expensive black suit, plays the demurely grieving widow. Peter Fallow lurks about noting who has entered so as to write-up the event in The City Light. He peeks in the guest book for names (noting some of the vapid social animals Sherman has encountered at the Bavardages' and di Duccis', such as Baron Hochswald, Nunnally Voyd, and Bobby Shaflett).

Sherman approaches Maria while they are in earshot of Peter Fallow. Fallow overhears him say to her, "But you're my only witness." Maria says nothing of value for Sherman's tape, but Fallow has (once again) struck gold. He hears Maria pronounce Sherman's name "Shuhmun," which coincides with Roland Auburn's memory. Fallow decides to crucify Sherman and Maria both.

Once Sherman leaves, Fallow approaches Maria and explains that he was with her husband when he died. He lies and says that he tried to help Arthur by providing CPR. At first she is demure and grateful, but when he changes the subject to Sherman and the accident, she strongly rebuffs him.

In Chapter 29, Kramer, Bernie Fitzgibbon, Detective Martin, and Detective Goldberg all meet in Abe Weiss's office. Their case has hit a snag. Two crack dealers have come forward willing to talk about Roland Auburn in exchange for lighter sentencing. They say that they have information about the night of the Lamb ordeal.

These witnesses state that Roland Auburn had been teasing Henry Lamb at the Texas Fried Chicken stand because of Henry's law-abiding, churchgoing ways. Roland egged Henry into watching him "take off" a car (meaning "rob the occupants and strip the car of valuables"). He brought Henry to an expressway on-ramp and blocked the ramp with a tire. Henry did not help him, though he was present. The young man say that the Mercedes came along and a confrontation took place between the two young men and Sherman and Maria; Henry was sideswiped by the Mercedes as it sped off.

DA Weiss is furious. This new take on the event compromises Roland's testimony, which is Kramer's main line of evidence. Bernie Fitzgibbon notes that the new story matches the story that Sherman told to the Daily News. It also explains certain holes in Roland's account, such as why Henry didn't tell anyone at the hospital that he was hit by a car. They do wonder why Roland would want someone as inexperienced and "lame" as Henry along on a robbery attempt.

Kramer, who is by now professionally committed to the case, attempts to defend Roland. A colleague interrupts with an article from The City Light that fingers Maria as the Mysterious Brunette. Weiss springs into action, informing the media, and sends Kramer, Martin, and Goldberg to interview Maria and threaten her with the "he hit, she ran" scenario. He plans to bring felony charges against her unless she testifies against McCoy.

Kramer with the media in tow (thanks to Weiss), confronts Maria, who has already secured two attorneys, and spooks her with the felony threat. Her luxuriant apartment -- even more impressive than the McCoys' -- makes for ideal news coverage, and Larry gets a sick thrill out of asserting his power over her.

Meanwhile Tommy Killian and Sherman discuss the City Lights article. Apparently Maria has contacted Killian, asking to meet Sherman "you know where" at 4:30. Sherman prepares to wear a wire to their interview.

Sherman arrives at the hideaway apartment, seeing it with new, jaundiced eyes. They had felt the place to be a deliciously "bohemian" retreat; in fact, it's just dingy. He meets Maria, who insists that she knew nothing about Sherman's legal trouble when she went to Italy, but rather intended to escape Arthur's "verbal abuse." This is a lie, which Sherman knows because he showed her the first City Light article himself. She dodges, however, and Sherman tries to steer the conversation to the accident, hoping to get her to admit to driving the car on tape.

Maria moves to hug him, and Sherman awkwardly shifts so that she doesn't feel the hidden tape recorder. She tells Sherman about Kramer's threat, saying that she must corroborate the DA's case to avoid felony charges. Sherman continues to fish for a confession, and Maria notices his awkwardness. She embraces him again and feels the tape recorder. Sherman flees the apartment, feeling like a failure and a cheat, with her insults ringing in his ears.


The funeral of Arthur Ruskin reprises the parties at the Bavardages' and the di Ducci's. Many of the same people are there, and the atmosphere of wealthy self-congratulation is the same. Wolfe thus satires the New York elite in a most macabre manner. There is no relief from social convention or pretentiousness, not even in death. Once again, even Fallow finds the remorseless superficiality of these W.A.S.P. monsters unbearable. Even their eulogies smack of insincerity.

Slowly but surely, Sherman is coming to see such nonsense clearly. He has even lost his rose-tinted glasses with Maria, whose standoffish behavior at the funeral betrays a ferocious selfishness. Indeed, Maria is depicted as little more than a Jezebel -- a two-timing flirt who would happily leave Sherman to rot in jail if she weren't implicated in the mess by Fallow. Her attempts to use seductive wiles to discover his strategy are no better than Sherman's recourse to a wire. Indeed, Sherman's approach is more dignified in the eyes of the reader, simply because he's in pursuit of the truth -- she was driving the car, after all -- while she is willing to lie to save her neck. If the shoe were on the other foot -- if Sherman had been driving and she were called to account for it -- you can bet that noble, gallant Sherman would have rushed to her defense. More fool he, perhaps.

Maria's seductive duplicity, like so many elements in this novel, follows from age-old stereotypes. She is the shallow, forked-tongue, painted city woman from time out of mind -- and Wolfe gives her no character whatever aside from this stereotype. Indeed, one of the concerns of his book seems to be a reexamination of the old gender stereotypes, and not a generous one. If women have always been wily, and men has always suffered for it, perhaps (Wolfe suggests) it's time for men to give up the noble approach and wear a wire to save their skins. In a world where everyone else is strategic, the honest perish quick. Perhaps one can thus forgive Wolfe his incessant stereotyping (and his inability to write convincing women characters) by arguing that everyone in the book is a lying bounder. But Wolfe still lends redeemable traits to his men, especially to Sherman, that he denies his women. If there is one major stumbling block for the reader of The Bonfire of the Vanities, it's Wolfe's apparent disinterest in characters who aren't white men.

The emergence of (not exactly credible, but no less so than Roland) witnesses that corroborate McCoy's story is crucial. For one thing, it guarantees the futility of Kramer's quest for The Great White Defendant, though he's not giving up yet. It also tweaks the events of the night in question one more time. Apparently the black men were going to rob the white folks in the Bronx; apparently the white folks were justified in speeding away so fearfully.

But even as Wolfe provides this apparent endorsement of racial prejudice, he complicates matters with the development of Henry's character. Henry is a good kid, whose mother was evidently working with him on his future, who was sucked into a stupid and senseless robbery without his consent. Following the accident, Henry probably knew that, even if he told the truth, he'd somehow be blamed -- as young African-American men often are -- for what Roland attempted, and so he kept quiet about the collision and thus failed to receive treatment for his head injury. Responsibility for Henry's death is complicated; it implicates the culture of fear and mistrust toward black men just as clearly as it implicates the criminal culture of Roland. He is indeed a Lamb sacrificed to all of society.