The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 8 - "The Case" and Chapter 9 - "Some Brit Named Fallow"


Back at the Bronx County Building, Kramer and Detectives Martin and Goldberg discuss the Lamb case. There is confusion about what actually happened to the boy: he was treated with a broken wrist the night of the accident, but the following day he fell into a coma. Thus his head trauma went undetected at first. The three think that the case will probably blow over, but they go to Reverend Bacon's office in Harlem to discuss it with the boy's mother.

There the Reverend refers to Henry as a "fine young man." The detectives point out that there is no evidence for a hit-and-run, and that the story is unlikely, but the Reverend insists that they move forward with an investigation.

Annie Lamb arrives and impresses the men with her neat appearance and self-possession. She is not the welfare mom from the projects they were expecting -- she is a hardworking a widow, trying to raise her son and keep him out of trouble. She explains that on the night of the accident, Henry came home with a splint on his wrist. He didn't explain what happened and went to bed. The following morning he could hardly talk, but he said that he was hit by a Mercedes-Benz with a license plate beginning with "RE, RF, RB, or RP."

Kramer tells Mrs. Lamb that there is very little evidence to go on, and that her information is unlikely to lead to a trial. This enrages the Reverend, who implies that the white DA's office will not pursue the case because Henry is poor and black. The men leave, feeling sorry for Mrs. Lamb, but not at all hopeful that the case will amount to anything.

In Chapter 9, Peter Fallow receives a call from the celebrity criminal defense lawyer, Al Vogel, offering to give Fallow a story. Fallow has a horrible hangover, but he's in trouble at work and Vogel is offering him a free meal, so he goes to meet him.

Vogel explains the particulars of the Lamb case, emphasizing the hospital mishap of treating Henry's broken wrist instead of his head trauma. Vogel's attempt to drum-up media interest in the story works, as Fallow is intrigued. He calls the city desk at his paper to get the go-ahead to work on the case.

Back in the Bronx, Larry Kramer, who has been involved with another homicide case involving a man called Pimp, learns that Fallow is inquiring into the Lamb case. He explains the state of the case, and how, with the information the DA's office has now, it will be difficult if not impossible to prosecute.

Nevertheless, Fallow pursues the story. He interviews a teacher from Henry Lamb's school, and encourages the man to say that Henry was an honor student "by the standards of the school" -- which are dismally low. Also, though Henry's only option for college would have been the open-enrollment City College of New York, and though Henry had no specific plans for attending college, Fallow describes Lamb as a "prospective college student." Clearly, Fallow is intent on distorting the Lamb case -- and thus benefitting himself, Vogel, and Bacon, as well as the Lambs.


The encounter between the detectives and Kramer and the Reverend Mr. Bacon and Mrs. Annie Lamb is fraught with ulterior motives. Kramer's overriding concern, through the car ride there and the entire meeting, is essentially not to appear too sympathetic or "Jewish" to his idol, the Irish Detective Martin. From Kramer's self-hating perspecive, being "Irish" means being tough, uncompromising, and manly. Kramer, who makes his living by posturing in front of juries and clenching his neck muscles, is obviously worried about his own manliness. So he emulates Martin's stoicism, and in the process comes off as unsympathetic to Reverend Bacon and Mrs. Lamb. This "Irish" stoicism -- this attempt to conquer his own "Jewishness" -- opens Kramer up to accusations of being racist and unfeeling. Thus playing into ethnic stereotypes is presented as a perpetually self-defeating process.

Indeed, nearly everything in the case hinges on racial interpretations. Mrs. Lamb, who is understandably suspicious of the white power structure represented by Larry and the detectives, is easily led along by Reverend Bacon. It's impossible not to feel sorry for Mrs. Lamb and her son, who appears to be an essentially good young man, even as one is wary of the glib manner in which Reverend Bacon equates the case with out-and-out racism. Bacon treats the matter of Lamb's treatment in the hospital, for instance, as clearly racist, though we never learn whether hospital staff were negligent and ignored signs of head trauma or whether they were in the right.

Wolfe emphasizes that such motivating factors are almost always ambiguous -- and almost always irrelevent. It doesn't matter whether Lamb was treated well or poorly in the hospital -- just as it doesn't matter whether Kramer acted tough out of disinterest in the case or out of emulation of the "Irish." What matters is how you tell the story after the fact: how you spin it. Motivation can be shown to be clear-cut, even though it almost never is. It's already clear who the masters of media spin are in the story, and they've already begun to constuct a clear and easily digestible account of the scholarly, innocent Lamb (get it?) sacrificed to a racist society.

Fallow, for all of his personal failures, knows the art of spin very well indeed. (One might note in passing that as bad as American tabloids can be, British tabloids are among the most outrageous and irresponsible in the world; Fallow might be a proxy for the sensationalist reportage that goes on across the pond.) Fallow manipulates his readers' racism -- and reveals his own -- by insisting that Lamb be presented as "more" than just another kid in the ghetto. Lamb has to be a college-bound "honor student" in order to merit media attention. Fallow, more than anyone else, weaves the narrative of "rich" "evil" "white" Manhattan versus "poor" "virtuous" "black" Bronx.

This is not just simplistic, it's terribly patronizing, especially to the Lambs, who aren't worthy enough for media consumption without being tagged with such stereotypes. Thus the racist white establishment is shown to be working in tandem with Bacon -- both promote an overstated, "good versus evil" narrative, the one to gain prestige and sell papers, the other to increase power and make fraudulant profits. The Lambs themselves disappear into caricatures of "good black people." At least since Uncle Tom's Cabin, such representations of "black virtue" have been the flip-side of the demonizations that we more easily recognize as racist. Lamb can be either "just another street thug," as Sherman and Maria see him on the night of the accident, or an innocent "honor student."

Henry Lamb himself, meanwhile, is just as invisible as ever. Indeed, even as Bacon and Fallow wish to see Lamb as a "noble" innocent sacrificed to a white supremacist society, Henry fades into the background. We never get to know who he was, what he did for fun, why he was where he was. His life -- and his senseless death -- matters only as a cipher for Fallow and Bacon to load up with hokum. This is the true sacrifice of Henry Lamb: to the bizarre allegiance of a bigoted Brit and an opportunist Reverend for the sake of power and money. At least, that's how Wolfe seems to frame things.