The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4 - "King of the Jungle" and Chapter 5 - "The Girl with Brown Lipstick"


Sherman takes his expensive Mercedes two-seater to the airport to pick up his mistress, Maria Ruskin. He has been on "model behavior" at home for a week now, and his wife's frostiness following the phone mishap has abated somewhat. He retrieves the glamorously dressed Maria and helps her and her prodigious amount of luggage into the car.

During the drive, Maria distracts him with talk of a British man on the plane who had been flirting with her. He had mentioned the 16th-century poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe and Maria does not know who Marlowe was. Sherman condescendingly lectures about Marlowe, and the two get into a mild argument. This causes him to miss his turn and end up in the Bronx rather than in Manhattan.

The couple struggle to find their way out of the Bronx, where they are conspicuous white people in an expensive car. Just as they have almost reached the George Washington Bridge back to Manhattan, they are stopped by a tire in the road. Sherman gets out to move it and two young black men come toward him, saying "Yo! Need some help?" Sherman and Maria panic, automatically assuming that the men are there to rob them. Sherman throws the tire at the larger man, and Maria gets into the driver seat. Sherman runs back into the car, knocking over the skinny man on his way. The man falls up against the back fender of the car, and Maria grazes him as she speeds away.

As they drive away, Sherman and Maria discuss frantically what may have happened. Sherman is sure that they have hit one of the men; Maria seems unconcerned by this. They reach her "hideaway" apartment and talk the situation over. Sherman wants to go directly to the police, but Maria is vehemently against this. She argues that they don't know what happened, that it would be awkward for them to be caught publicly together, and that, after all, she was the one driving -- not Sherman. He worries that the boys were offering help, but then Maria strokes his ego, telling him that he was "King of the Jungle," defending them from the dangerous young men of the Bronx. They congratulate themselves on their escape.

Sherman leaves the hideaway and brings his car back to the garage where he keeps it with his other car, a Mercury station wagon. He is confronted by Dan, the garage attendant, whom Sherman dislikes for being so familiar. The attendant notices that Sherman's jacket is torn. The victorious Sherman struts home feeling like a real man.

In Chapter 5, we find Larry in his office. We meet his officemates, Andriutti and Caughey, who are also ADAs. They discuss their boss Abe Weiss, and his fascination with the news media. Their nickname for him is "Captain Ahab" because he is on the lookout for the Great White Defendant -- a white man whom the DA office could prosecute. Since the vast majority of the people who Larry and his associates prosecute are black or hispanic, and since Weiss is up for re-election, the DA's office is eager to show that their execution of justice is even-handed and colorblind. The ADA's agree: for once, they would like to prosecute someone who isn't an oppressed minority.

Larry ponders the nature of his job, and indulges in a little self-congratulation of the fact that he is the rare Jewish man in the Homicide Bureau. For many years it had been almost exclusively Irish, and, though he doesn't easily admit it, Larry would much rather be Irish than Jewish. While Larry and his friends talk, the first information about the McCoy case comes in. Henry Lamb, the young man that Maria clipped in the Bronx, is near-death in a hospital. He says that he was hit by a Mercedes-Benz.

Larry goes off to prosecute the case against Herbert 92X, a African-American Muslim on trial for manslaughter. We learn that such cases are so plentiful in the Bronx that hardly any cases receive individual attention. A judge's effectiveness is almost entirely determined by how many cases he can get through, which encourages plea bargaining and discourages jury trials. The sad story of Herbert 92Xs trial is told - how he was driving a truck which was hijacked. The hijackers realized they had hijacked a truck of their own employers, so they went back to find Herbert 92X (who has adopted 92X as his Muslim name, like Malcolm X). When they found him, Herbert thought they were coming back to kill him, so he fired his gun at them. He missed and killed an innocent bystander. Herbert reads from the Koran at the trial and protests his innocense. Larry pulls out all the stops on this trial to impress the girl with brown lipstick, Shelly Thomas, who is on the jury.

Later, back in the office, Larry gets a call from Detective Martin about the Henry Lamb case. He rushes to Lincoln Hospital to interview the mother of the injured young man, as Henry has fallen into a coma.


Chapter 4 contains Maria's and Sherman's account of the accident that occurred in the Bronx. Wolfe emphasizes the tragiccomic nature of this event, which was very preventable. The death would have been avoided if Sherman had not agreed to pick up Maria at the airport, or if Sherman had conducted an affair at all, or if Maria had not had a secret "hideaway" that allowed her to come home a day early and deceive her husband, or if they had not had the disagreement in the car about Christopher Marlowe.... The event is arbitrary and accidental, yet, as we will see, it sets off the seething tensions in New York that are neither arbitrary nor accidental, namely, the pervasive realities of -- and manipulations of -- racial and social injustice. The fact that such a senseless, tragic event could be eventually imbued with such widespread significance illustrates the precariousness of New York City politics.

To complicate things further, the event is highly ambiguous. Later, Roland Auburn (the larger young man), Maria, Sherman and others will all give quite divergent accounts of the events. Wolfe is careful to capture the confusion and ambiguity of the event right away. Each character experiences reality through his or her own adreneline-charged point-of-view, and each is determined to retell events in the best light possible. Even from the outset we see Maria and Sherman rationalizing and rethinking the accident to make themselves look better. Soon, this process will be carried to its extreme in the court of law.

Chapter 5 provides background on the criminal justice system in the Bronx, a world of difficult-to-prove cases, pointless violence, and eternal backlogging of justice. Cynicism reigns among the ADAs, who know that there is little hope of change in the Bronx. They dream of prosecuting white people not out of a sense of justice, but just to quiet their own (white) consciences a little bit. The ADA's are also very sensitive to the role of the media in "justice," and their boss' obsession with television and his media image. Thus the Bronx criminal system is shown to be a hollow, cynical approximation of justice performed by an underpaid and overworked staff.

The juxtaposition of the two chapters -- as with Chapters Two and Three -- continues to emphasize the difference between Sherman's world and Larry's. Also, the (ambiguously) criminal event in Chapter 4 is immediately followed by the description of the punishment for such actions in Chapter 5. We are given a not-too-subtle hint that Sherman will be prosecuted in the Bronx for his involvement in the accident on the ramp near Bruckner Boulevard. The foreshadowing is pretty clear: Sherman is obviously flustered when he drops off his car at the garage, and Dan the garage attendant can't help but notice his ripped jacket. Of course such details will play out in the court.

Wolfe leaves intentionally ambiguous the motivation of the young men on the ramp in the Bronx. Was Roland Auburn trying to rob Maria and Sherman? Was the sentence, "Yo! You need help?" an offer of help, as Sherman later thinks, or a threat, as Maria thinks. Wolfe is careful not to sentimentalize the event -- i.e. to make the young men too obviously innocent. It's ultimately not significant to Wolfe whether they had good or bad intentions; what matters is that the worlds of rich white Manhattan and poor black Bronx have collided. Like the first shot fired in a war, this point of contact is ambiguous and open to interpretation, but what ultimately counts is the war to follow. To switch metaphors, Wolfe is more interested in the powder keg than the spark.