Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 14-15

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Chapter 14: I Don’t Know How to Lie

Sherman McCoy wakes up from a nightmare, unable to sleep any longer. He wishes he could hold his wife, but there is an invisible wall between them. He is filled with anguished regret; his lust has led him into this mess.

 

At work, he sneaks downstairs to buy a copy of The City Light. An editorial calls for an aggressive investigation of the case, and he realizes it has become a crusade. Freddy Button calls, urging him to go see Tommy Killian, the criminal lawyer. Sherman leaves work early and goes home to sleep.

 

The maid awakens Sherman to tell him the police are downstairs looking for him. He keeps the police waiting while he decides what to do. Fingers shaking, he dials Freddy’s number, but gets no answer. He has the maid call the police on up.

 

Detectives Martin and Goldberg stand in the entry gallery, admiring the lavishly decorated apartment. They don’t seem to suspect him at first; he’s just one of the many people they have to check out. But Sherman realizes he doesn’t know how to lie. He grows more and more nervous as they ask routine questions. When they ask to see the car, he balks and starts babbling that he needs to talk to his lawyer. The detectives sense his guilt. As they leave, they warn him that he’d better start cooperating before it’s too late.

 

After the police are gone, Judy and Campbell come home. He tells Judy about the police and explains that he wants to talk to his lawyer. Judy is surprised and tells him there is nothing to worry about, since he was not out driving his car in the Bronx that night. Sherman rushes down to the pay phone to call Maria, but can’t reach her. Back at the house, Judy reminds him of a dinner party they’re attending that night.

 

Chapter 15: The Masque of the Red Death

Sherman and Judy hire a car to take them the six blocks to the dinner party at the Bavardages’. A taxi is out of the question, as they don’t want to be seen out on the street trying to hail a cab in their fancy evening clothes later that night.

 

The high-society dinner party, filled with fake laughter and shining teeth, reminds Sherman of a buzzing hive. The skinny middle-aged women, the “social X-rays,” wear puffy dresses to disguise their juiceless bodies, while the “Lemon Tarts,” sexy young blondes, hang on the arms of rich financiers. Bobby Shaflett, a blond opera singer from the Ozarks, is the darling of the party. Sherman finds it ludicrous how the society figures fawn over this quaint “Golden Hillbilly.” There are no African-American faces here. Sherman wanders around the party, trying to mingle but failing miserably. Judy mingles right in, and Sherman hears her laughing a phony laugh while talking to Maria’s aged, hairy-eared husband, Arthur Ruskin.

 

Sherman finds to his shock that he has been seated next to none other than Maria Ruskin at dinner. He discreetly tells her about the visit from the police, and she is angry at how he handled it. They agree to talk again the next night, and move on to another topic. Maria complains that Arthur has been jealous and calls her “whore” in front of the servants.

 

At dinner, the English poet Aubrey Buffing, who is dying of AIDS, makes a speech alluding to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” In the story, Prince Prospero gathers all his noble friends together in his castle, where they plan to shut out the rest of the world and avoid the great plague, the Red Death, as it ravages the commoners. Safely behind the walls, the guests enjoy themselves at a festive masked ball. But a guest dressed as Death interrupts the party. When the Prince tries to eject him, he falls down dead. To their horror, they realize that the Red Death has entered their sanctuary, and one by one, they all die.

 

Lord Buffing’s speech embarrasses the guests at the Bavardages’ party, but Sherman feels to his horror that the man is speaking directly to him. Edgar Allan Poe! The Poe projects, where Henry Lamb lived! It all makes sense. The Red Death will soon arrive for Sherman at his Park Avenue palace. There is no escape.

 

Analysis of Chapters 14–15

Brought up in an ivory tower, Sherman is essentially naïve and immature; he “doesn’t know how to lie.” His interview with the police is comically disastrous. His vanity is part of the reason he’s brought down; he can’t stand the fact that these men, who are beneath him in every way, dare come into his house and sit on his desk and question him. Echoing the scene with the bumbling landlord’s agent in Chapter 11, the police are free now to come into his private world.

 

Ironically, if Sherman had cooperated, the police never would have suspected him; the car has no marks on it. Therefore, it is not merely bad luck that leads to Sherman’s downfall, but his own fatal flaws of vanity and naivete.

           

Through the Bavardages’ dinner party, Wolfe gleefully satirizes the world of the Park Avenue socialite. “Bavardage” is French for “prattle” or “chatter,” and these people are shown chattering, prattling, and buzzing meaninglessly like bees in a hive. Wolfe gives his caricatures Dickensian names like Nunnally Voyd (none, void); Sally Rawthrote (her throat raw from talking) and Lord Gutt. Among the crowd being skewered are Sherman’s wife Judy (a social X-ray in the making), Maria (a brunette Lemon Tart), and Arthur Ruskin, a vulgar, hoary, fat-bellied capitalist.

 

In the midst of the revelry comes the Masque of the Red Death in the form of Lord Buffing. There is a clear parallel between the Poe story and the social situation in the New York of the 1980s. The wealthy and fashionable world was for the most part ignoring the AIDS epidemic, as surely as they were ignoring the epidemics of racism, classism, and poverty going on in other parts of their city outside their Park Avenue walls. Sherman hears Buffing’s speech as a warning to him personally, but it’s really for society as a whole: “You can’t insulate yourself forever.”

 

 

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