The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 30 - "An Able Pupil"; Chapter 31 - "Into the Solar Plexus" and Epilogue - "Financier Is Arraigned"


At the courthouse, the grand jury is assembled for the McCoy indictment. Roland Auburn is brought forward to give evidence. Tommy Killian, Sherman's lawyer, cannot be there, as this is an indictment and not a hearing or a trial, and Larry Kramer takes advantage of this to make Roland Auburn look as presentable as possible. Larry has taught Roland to walk, at least temporarily, without the "Pimp Roll" which so clearly says "Street Hood" to a jury. Instead, Roland wears "preppy" clothes. Roland tells the story we know already, changing the location and details of the event to make it seem that he and Henry Lamb were innocent victims of Sherman's callousness and carelessness. He is sure to note that he heard the woman refer to "Shuhmun."

Maria Ruskin, dressed to the nines, is called to the stand. She plays the young, beautiful, grieving widow and manages to look both trustworthy and glamorous. She corroborates the details of Roland's testimony, agreeing that the incident occurred on Bruckner Boulevard and telling the jury that Sherman was driving when Henry was hit. She also says that Sherman refused to tell the police. Larry makes Maria say "Shuhmun" many times. The grand jury indicts Sherman.

The City Light runs an article about the rent-controlled "hideaway" apartment that Maria illegally sublet from her friend, Germaine Boll. Sherman and his legal team discuss Maria, and Sherman (incredibly) clings to his feeling that she has "walked a straight line" in the affair. Quigley and Killian, on the other hand, see Maria as little better than a high-class hooker. The news article has a provocative photo of Maria, and says that she lured McCoy, and possibly others, into her "love nest." Judy will undoubtedly see the article, and McCoy frets that he has lied to Judy; now she is certain never to forgive him.

Sherman wonders how Fallow could have gotten the information about the rent-controlled nature of the illegal hideaway. Sherman never told anyone, and Maria has no reason to incriminate herself. Quigley guesses that the landlord, Mr. Winter, must be illegally monitoring the property in order to evict rent-controlled tenants in favor of higher-paying tenants, and he rushes out to test his theory. Meanwhile, Bernie Fitzgibbon calls Killian, and tells him about the indictment and the possibility of increased bail. Sherman faces possible jail time once more.

Larry Kramer also sees the article in The City Light. He grants that the depiction of Maria will harm her in front of a jury, but relaxes because the grand jury indictment has already occurred. The comment about a "rent-controlled love nest, $331 a month" catches his interest, and he toys with the idea of calling the landlord, Mr. Winter, for information.

That night, Sherman despairs of going back to jail. The luxury of his surroundings mock him. He calls Judy in Southampton, but receives no comfort from her. She has given up on the relationship. Sherman recalls a shared memory of when he was a young upstart in finances: he would raise his fist in the Black Power salute every morning to show that though he worked on Wall Street, he was not of Wall Street. Judy does not respond to such memories except to say that they are "abused."

The next day, Killian calls Sherman with good news: Quigley has managed to obtain a recording of Maria and Sherman talking together in the hideaway. Apparently Mr. Winter, attempting to glean information about his leasees, hid a microphone in each apartment. Quigley has the recording from the night after the first article in The City Light. This is an illegal tape obtained in an illegal way, so Killian doesn't want to get Sherman's hopes up too high, but nonetheless Maria has admitted, on tape, that she was the driver at the time of the accident. Maria can thus be proved a liar and perhaps even tried for perjury.

Sherman agrees to say that he made the recording himself in order that it might be admitted as evidence. Sherman -- once a Master of the Universe, a golden boy of Wall Street -- realizes that he has sunk to the level of a criminal, but also realizes that he has to play the game that way. He is not "above" anything, and facing another stint in jail, he decides to save his own neck by any means necessary.

In Chapter 31, Sherman's bail hearing falls on a beautiful day, which Sherman takes as grimly ironic given that he might return to jail. The usual demonstrators wait for him at the court, with Peter Fallow hollering for a statement and Reverend Bacon's bodyguard amid the crowd as well. In the courtroom, Judge Myron Kovitsky presides over an unruly courtroom full of Bacon's agitators. Kovitsky, a fair and just judge, quiets the demonstrators by threatening them with contempt of court.

Larry Kramer asks for a one million dollar bail for Sherman, citing "community pressure." Killian then approaches the bench and tells Kovitsky and Kramer that he has a tape-recorded conversation between Maria and Sherman that disproves her grand jury testimony. Kramer panics and tries to block the evidence, but Kovitsky insists upon hearing the tapes in his chambers. Quigley has edited the tapes in order to make them seem legal. In them, Maria insults Kramer and insinuates that he coached her testimony. She also states that she was driving the Mercedes when she hit Henry Lamb.

Though he could follow through on the question of whether Kramer suborned purjury from Maria, Kovitsky concentrates instead on the tainted nature of the grand jury testimony. Kramer desperately attempts to defend the grand jury indictment. When Kovitsky won't budge, Kramer suggests that he will buckle before the angry mob outside. Kovitsky quietly says that he will face them down. He asserts the abstract priciples of law and justice in an angry tirade.

Kovitsky returns to the courtroom and dismisses the indictment of Sherman. However, the DA's office has the option, with further evidence, to prosecute the case in the future. The mob grows violent and Kovitsky realizes that he should have explained to the tainted nature of the grand jury evidence. A full-fledged riot breaks out. In the struggle, Sherman punches the tall, black gold-earringed bodyguard in the solar plexus. Sherman, the judge, and the lawyers escape through the back and pack into an elevator together.

Once on the ground floor, in a display of moral bravura, the judge attempts to explain himself and end the violence. However, Reverend Bacon has whipped the crowd into a frenzy. A crazed man runs violently at the judge and Sherman shoves the man away. Realizing the futility of their cause, they flee.

The Epilogue takes the form of a story in The New York Times by a reporter who was not involved in the McCoy case. It is dated one year after the bail hearing.

Sherman McCoy's legal woes contine and he continues to be harrassed by Reverend Bacon's political machine. As he says, "I have nothing to do with Wall Street and Park Avenue. I'm a professional defendant." Arraigned for manslaughter and sprting injuries that he apparently received behind bars, McCoy pleads "absolutely innocent." He represents himself in the arraignment, as he can no longer afford Killian's services. (Killian, however, still comments on McCoy's behalf, saying that the real criminals in the case are Bacon, Weiss and Fallow.)

Sherman's financial woes have also come to a head. He is reduced to living in a small apartment, and his remaining money is frozen as a result of civil actions brought by Vogel. A Bronx jury awarded Henry Lamb $12 million in damages, a decision that Sherman is appealing.

We learn that McCoy had attempted to give his apartment and remaining assets to his ex-wife (yes, Judy has divorced him) and daughter. Judy and Campbell have moved back to Wisconsin, but Judy appeared in the courtroom at the arraignment. Sherman gave her the Black Power salute, but has since refused to speak to reporters about it.

Because Kovitsky threw out the previous indictment, the Bronx Democratic organization refused to re-nominate him and he was defeated. When Sherman was re-indicted by a different grand jury in February, the trial resulted in a hung jury.

Meanwhile, Maria has married the artist Filippo Chirazzi. Also, we learn that Larry Kramer has been removed from the case after trying to secure Maria's rent-controlled hideaway for his affair with Shelly Thomas. Herbert 92X, the man Kramer was prosecuting when he met Shelly, has obtained a reversal of his first-degree manslaughter conviction on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Fallow, we learn, has won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the McCoy case. At the book's end, he sails the Aegean Sea with his new bride, Lady Evelyn, Sir Gerald Steiner's daughter.


Wolfe sets up the farcical grand jury indictment almost as a collection of "oppressed groups fighting back" against Sherman, the poster boy for the W.A.S.P. ruling class, with Roland representing African-Americans, Maria representing women, Larry representing Jews and the whole lot representing the lower classes (even Maria had humble origins in South Carolina). The fact that this band of the "oppressed" are using the criminal justice system to pursue their grievances, and the fact that every one of them is guilty of purjury, undermines the whole notion of "striking back" against "the man." Some might consider Wolfe's entire purpose satirical -- after all, aside from Judge Kovitsky, it's nearly impossible to find a principled adult in the story, and we don't know Kovitsky too well.

However, the care with which he sets up the opposition of a flawed but redeemable W.A.S.P. with a pack of rampant power-hungry perjurors suggests a broader message. Wolfe seems to condemn the idea that one can punish an individual for the crimes of his race. Though the white establishment may be guilty of horrible crimes, Sherman McCoy, Wolfe suggests, is innocent, and only lies and travesties can bring him down.

As this analysis has noted repeatedly, Wolfe has a great deal of sympathy for Sherman McCoy, the embattled white man. He ultimately justifies his racist reaction to the Lamb incident by establishing that Roland intended to rob him; he presents his actions toward Maria as noble and self-sacrificing even to the point of absurdity; he submits Sherman to incredibly unjust (and unrealistic, even for the culture wars of the eighties) persecution by Fallow's pen and Bacon's mob. In short, it's impossible to feel that Sherman McCoy deserves the heap of trouble he gets, no matter how predisposed one is to despise him.

Yet surely McCoy deserves some trouble! After all, he did cover up a hit-and-run, he has committed and covered-up adultery, he has repeatedly demonstrated a knee-jerk aversion to African-Americans, and he has coasted to millions without special insight into the workings of the world, simply on the basis of his pedigree. Throughout the novel, one waits for the moment when McCoy's understanding of society expands, when he takes the world in from a perspective other than his own. Alas, it never comes. The most Sherman can manage is a cynical rejection of superficial Park Avenue affectations. Is this Sherman's great triumph? To see how shallow rich New Yorkers can be? Because such a conclusion will surprise few. Yet Wolfe appears to endorse this conclusion in the epilogue, when he has Sherman salute his wife with a black power fist -- as though he is justified now, after a year of legal woes, in identifying with the permanent urban underclass in the Bronx. This is character progress? It seems, rather, like the substitution of one self-indulgent Master of the Universe fantasy for another.

But then one wrongs Wolfe, perhaps, by taking his apparent messages too seriously -- and heck, perhaps Wolfe expects us to see so clearly through McCoy's affected "absolute innocen[ce]." The Bonfire of the Vanities is a work of satire, after all, filled with curmudgeonly asides (notice how often Wolfe decries sneakers as evidence of social decay) and cartoonish overstatement. Perhaps, with this in mind, Wolfe wishes to present in his novel the eighties as he sees them, through a journalist's jaundiced eye. The city, the era seem like a drawn-out cynical morality play, with no side deserving of applause but each protesting its virtue with loudspeakers and photo ops. Its the era of demagogues from both camps -- a DA Weiss for every Reverend Bacon -- who depend on perpetuating the status quo, on feeding racism where it exists and fanning it up where it doesn't. The more racism there is, the more power Bacon has, this seems clear. And the less justice there is, the more power Weiss has. Two perfect paradoxes, and we're caught in the middle. What can we do but laugh?

Such a bitter, comic view finds much to back it up in the absurd epilogue. It appears that Sherman's mire of legal troubles, criminal and civil, will never be resolved. Maria, of course, gets off scot-free and marries Filippo. Kovitsky, the spokesperson for morality in the novel, loses his office because of the McCoy case. Al Vogel, the man who orchestrated the public anger over this case in the first place, wins a massive judgment against Sherman and the hospital, and no doubt collects his fee. Larry Kramer, devolved to a caricature of lust and stupidity, is caught foolishly trying to rent the "hideaway" for his affair with Shelly Thomas. Killian, unable to represent Sherman anymore because he's already taken all of his available assets, is in legal trouble of his own. And Fallow, who is, possibly after Al Vogel, the person who caused the most damage of all, wins the highest honor in journalism and marries a rich aristocrat. C'est la vie.