Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 22-23

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Chapter 22: Styrofoam Peanuts

Sherman wakes up long before dawn, unable to sleep knowing he will be arrested within hours. Judy is sleeping in the guest room, and he’s alone and terrified. He’s going to jail—as the man who hit a black honor student and left him to die. What will happen to him?

 

Killian arrives with Detectives Martin and Goldberg. The detectives are kind to him now—they act like his friends and protectors. Martin even apologizes for the Styrofoam peanuts his kid spilled in the back of the car. Sherman is disturbed when the peanuts stick to the legs of his expensive tweed suit, and appalled that he is now under the protection of these brutes.

 

As they arrive at the Criminal Court building in the Bronx, they handcuff Sherman. The press descends on the car in a mob, and the detectives steer him through, Killian telling him to keep his head up and not look at anybody. Cameras and microphones are shoved in Sherman’s face, and Goldberg shoves them out of the way. Among the mob shouting for his attention is a photographer from The City Light who yells “Shitface!” to get his attention. It’s pouring rain, but they are forced to line up with all the other prisoners and wait outside a metal door. Sherman is sopping wet, with Styrofoam peanuts stuck to his pants legs like vermin. As they stand outside, Peter Fallow of The City Light comes to ask Sherman for his side of the story, but Sherman ignores him like all the rest.

 

Killian is furious that Bernie has broken his promise and allowed this circus arrest. He makes a statement to the press saying that his client denies all charges and the circus arrest should never have been allowed. Meanwhile, Sherman endures the screaming of the mob, and feels that he has died.

 

Inside, they book Sherman, take his belt and shoestrings, empty his pockets, and put him inside a cell filled with cockroaches and drunks. Someone takes a crap in the cell next door, and the whole place stinks. Weiss has left word that he must be treated like all the other prisoners; no special treatment. He gets fingerprinted, then put through a metal detector, which goes off because of the fillings in his teeth. This makes the policemen crack up. They make him do it again, and Sherman feels humiliated. The other prisoners ask him what he did to get all those TV cameras after him, and are unimpressed when he says he hit someone with his car—that doesn’t sound very macho.

 

More prisoners are led in, and when an African-American youth in for armed robbery asks him what he did, Sherman says “Manslaughter.” Later, as food is brought in, the youth takes Sherman’s drink, saying he’d better learn to make friends. Soon after, he demands Sherman’s jacket, but just when they’re about to have a fight, Sherman is called to go upstairs to the courtroom for his arraignment.

 

Sherman shuffles into the courtroom, sodden and wrinkled, in wet shoes with no strings. Killian prompts him to plead “Not guilty.” Then Larry Kramer, under the instructions of D.A. Weiss, presents a petition to the judge demanding that Sherman’s bail be raised to $250,000. The spectators at the trial begin to cheer and stomp in approval, but the judge, a fat, curly-haired young man, raps his gavel and reminds them this is an arraignment, not a rally, and that the bail will remain as set at $10,000.

The crowd explodes, some shouting death threats as Sherman is led away. Sherman vows he’ll never go back in that courtroom again, even if he has to kill himself to stay out. He thinks of his double-barreled shotgun back home.

         

Chapter 23: Inside the Cavity

At the D.A.’s office the next day, Kramer and Weiss watch the Channel 1 news coverage of the arraignment. Kramer is dismayed to find that the drawings of him in the courtroom show him as completely bald, when in fact his hair is only thinning. At least he looks big and muscular in the drawings. But the drawing of Kramer is only on screen for a moment, and then Weiss is shown, behind his microphones, looking like the real star of the show. Next, Killian is shown protesting his client’s innocence and the travesty of this “circus arrest,” done only to gain Weiss votes in the next election.

 

Weiss is pleased with the TV coverage and with the articles in The City Light. Peter Fallow has stopped targeting Weiss; now Sherman McCoy is the bad guy. Pictures of McCoy’s apartment are shown alongside photos of Lamb’s apartment in the projects, and Auburn is quoted as saying his companion that night was “foxy” and a “hot ticket.” Only one thing bothers Weiss—that Sherman looked so bedraggled. It doesn’t help him to have the public feel sympathy for the Great White Defendant.

 

Weiss then delivers a speech. It’s meant to be heartwarming but is really hypocritical. He has Kramer look out the window and points out that there are only blacks and Puerto Ricans on the streets of the Bronx. “We’ve got to let them know justice really is blind.” Kramer is glad nobody else is there to hear the speech; they might be cynical, knowing that Weiss is up for election soon. But he, Larry Kramer, understands. He glows under the D.A.’s praise (“You did a great job yesterday, Larry”) and is thrilled when Weiss invites him to eat lunch. Thank God for the Great White Defendant, he thinks—Sherman McCoy has been his ticket out of obscurity.

 

The Bororo Indians of the Amazon did not believe in the idea of a private self; to them, the mind is an open cavity in which the whole village dwells. This contrasts with the Western concept of the self as unique and containing something irreducible and inviolate. Sherman once thought the press was attacking him from the outside. No matter what they did or said, they couldn’t break down his private self. But now the “village” has entered his private world, his private self, and is screaming, stomping, and skipping around it freely. His private self is dead.

 

The phone rings, but few of the callers are friends. Only his mother, father, and work friend Rawlie call to comfort him. The press is shouting outside his building all day long, and the news reports are blaring with depictions of Sherman—most distorted almost beyond recognition. Everyone is now able to look into the empty cavity of his mind and think they know him. He begins to feel numb, deadened. The only thing he truly fears is returning to the courtroom again.

 

Sherman tries to walk his daughter to school in the morning as he normally does, but reporters dog him the whole way, taking photographs of him and Campbell. Angered, he pushes a microphone out of his face. The reporter screams that he hit her and begins shouting abuse. When they reach the bus stop, Campbell is in tears.

 

At the offices of The City Light, Fallow is congratulated by his boss, Gerald Steiner, who wanted to fire him not long ago. His story is “sensational, but it’s much more than that. It’s a morality play.” Steiner reveals that minority organizations have been heaping praise on the newspaper; in fact, he got a glowing testimonial from Reverend Bacon’s Third World Anti-Defamation League. This will make the paper look very good for advertisers. Steiner gives Fallow a thousand-dollar advance.

 

Al Vogel calls Fallow asking for Sherman McCoy’s telephone number. He’s preparing two civil suits—one against the hospital for negligence and one against Sherman McCoy. He wants McCoy’s number so they can begin to negotiate. Fallow gives it to him in exchange for an exclusive story about the civil suits.

 

Analysis of Chapters 22–23

The climax of the novel occurs in Chapter 22. This is the point everything has been building towards: Sherman’s arrest. As he stands in the rain outside the courthouse, reporters screaming at him, soaked by rain, he feels he’s dead. The image of Styrofoam peanuts clinging to his pants recalls maggots or vermin.

 

Judy’s words on the morning of Sherman’s arrest, “Be brave. Remember who you are,” resonate as Sherman’s experience with the press and criminal justice system completely destroy his sense of self. Once such a “Sure Man,” Sherman is now a nobody. Class, status, and money mean nothing now as all his vanities are burned away.

 

Sherman’s arraignment is a circus, with Kramer appearing as the head clown (one recalls the “Send In the Clowns” music that accompanied his first appearance in the book). However, it’s just what D.A. Weiss ordered. Weiss’s speech to Kramer after the arraignment about how “justice is blind” is laughably hypocritical. Justice is certainly not blind in the case of Sherman McCoy.

 

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