Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 16-17

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Chapter 16: Tawkin Irish

Detectives Martin and Goldberg meet with Kramer and Bernie Fitzgibbon to tell them about their encounter with Sherman McCoy. Kramer notes that although he and Goldberg are Jewish, everyone is acting like a tough, no-nonsense Irish cop. The Irish have left their stamp on New York law enforcement.

 

The detectives laugh as they recall how Sherman fell apart under questioning. Ironically, they say, when they checked out Sherman’s car at the garage nearby, it was totally clean without a mark on it. If Sherman had cooperated, they would’ve never suspected him; now, they’re sure he’s guilty. The garage attendant said that Sherman had indeed taken the car out on the night in question and returned looking like a mess. But Bernie Fitzgibbon is still not convinced they have a case. 

 

Sherman goes to see Tommy Killian at his office in the firm of Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel. The office is garish with fluorescent lighting, and he finds the young lawyer dressed too sharply. Killian speaks with the accent of an Irish cop—he says tawkin for “talking.” This is not the austere, high-class environment of Dunning Sponget.

 

Killian says that Sherman could be charged with several felonies, in addition to manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide if Henry Lamb dies. However, the case against him is not strong. The best thing Sherman can do is not talk to anything about it, not to admit a thing. Sherman suggests that he go to the police with Maria and try to get it all straightened out, but Killian says he’s crazy to do that. The case is too political now, and the D.A. is dying to get hold of him.

 

Besides, Killian warns, Maria may not want to cooperate. He advises getting hold of her as soon as possible to get some kind of statement from her.

 

Chapter 17: The Favor Bank

Back in the Bronx, District Attorney Abe Weiss meets with his assistants to discuss the Lamb case. Kramer is thrilled to be a part of this important meeting. But Weiss is not happy at all. Yet another protest was staged last night, this one covered by all the news channels, and the D.A.’s name was on the picket signs. Bacon is letting everyone know that the district attorney’s office doesn’t care about black people in the projects.

 

More eager than ever to bring an end to this bad publicity, Weiss proposes they bring a picture of Sherman McCoy down to the hospital and try to get the comatose Henry Lamb to identify him. Finally, he acknowledges that’s a crazy idea. But some way, some how, he’s going to get his hands on the Great White Defendant.

 

Meanwhile, Sherman has been calling Maria all morning, but can’t reach her. He goes to meet Killian to ask his advice. Killian reassures him that he’s talked to Bernie at the D.A.’s office, where a lot of people owe him favors, and found out they don’t really have any evidence. Still, Killian thinks Sherman should meet Maria and wear a wire. They need a statement from Maria that she was the driver. Sherman balks, not wanting to deceive someone he cares about, and naively believing it won’t be necessary.

 

That same day, Peter Fallow meets with Al Vogel, the lawyer working with Reverend Bacon on the Lamb case. He heaps flattery on Fallow and assures him that Bacon is pleased. Now, he suggests, would be a good time for an article focusing on the hospital’s negligence. Fallow resents being used but goes along with it, knowing he’s looking better than ever for being the main reporter on the Lamb case.

 

Back at the D.A.’s office, Kramer receives a call notifying him of a witness in the Lamb case, a small-time crack dealer named Roland Auburn who is in jail for criminal possession and sale of drugs. Auburn claims to have been with Lamb when he was hit by the car and is ready to make a deal.

 

Analysis of Chapters 16–17

Chapter 16 is a study in class attitudes. Detectives Martin and Goldberg, firmly in the working class, see Sherman as “your Wall Street asshole” with his “chin up in the air.” They pity him for being a basically nice guy who doesn’t have the heart for being on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, Sherman, who prides himself on his Waspy Knickerbocker (Dutch New York) heritage, looks down on tough-“tawking” Irishmen like Tommy Killian. Ironically, though, Sherman’s family is really from Tennessee, and he has an Irish-sounding name himself, putting his status as a Wasp in question. Also ironically, Killian and Sherman both went to Yale, which further blurs the artificial class distinction between the two men.

 

Wolfe uses accents and speech patterns in the dialogue throughout the book to help highlight the issue of class. Maria has a Southern accent; Rhoda has the accent of a New York Jew; Sherman says “Howja do” while Tommy says “Hehwaya.” “He don’t” and “she don’t” are commonly used among the Ivy league-educated attorneys at the D.A.’s office as a part of macho posturing.

 

Light is thrown on the dealmaking that goes on in the justice system, which runs on the “Favor Bank” and permits crack dealers to trade their sentences for false testimony. Abe Weiss, the crazed Captain Ahab of the Bronx District Courts, is becoming more insane when he hears “Weiss Justice Is White Justice,” so irrational that he thinks he can get a comatose Lamb to identify McCoy. The power-hungry Kramer, meanwhile, plays a fawning sycophant to Weiss. The point of all this is to show just how arbitrary is the system of justice. This is all new to McCoy, who still thinks he can “preempt the situation” by telling the police the truth.

 

The central issue of the McCoy case, according to Al Vogel, is “how much is a human life worth. Is a black life worth less than a white life?” His words have an ironic resonance, as McCoy’s life is just as worthless as Lamb’s to Vogel and the other players of this game. Reverend Bacon is willing to destroy Sherman so that he can enjoy the profit in a civil suit; Weiss wants to destroy him so he can appease the press and win the next election.

 

Sherman’s refusal to wear a wire with Maria, and his insistence that she would never betray him, shows that he is still very naïve. He still doesn’t understand the laws of the jungle—kill or be killed—that Maria knows all too well.

 

 

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