Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 26-27

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Chapter 26: Death New York Style

Gerald Steiner of The City Light has a new scheme to get more information on Maria Ruskin. He sends Peter Fallow to interview her husband, Arthur Ruskin, for a series on “The New Tycoons.” Ruskin is only too happy to accept the free publicity.

 

They meet at La Boue d’Argent, a fancy restaurant in Manhattan with a silver boar sculpture out front. Ruskin is well-known there, and is treated like a celebrity. Fallow notices how the old man smiles and smiles, like a kid at his birthday party. Tonight, however, the restaurant is expecting a visit from Madame Tacaya, the wife of the Indonesian dictator, and Ruskin may be upstaged, which he’s not happy about.

 

Ruskin, who’s 71 and ordered by doctors to avoid alcohol, drinks heavily. Over the fabulous and exotically prepared multi-course dinner, he bores Fallow by soliloquizing about the many roads he’s traveled to get where he is. A Jewish boy from Cleveland—who’d have thought? He reveals that after losing a fortune in the securities market, he earned it all back and more flying Arabs to Mecca on charter planes. Many of these Arabs had never been on planes before and brought their sheep, goats, and chickens along. Once the plane made a crash landing and the passengers didn’t even notice—they thought it was normal! Ruskin bursts into laughter at the funny story, and suddenly his head falls forward and he collapses into Fallow’s lap, evidently having a heart attack.

 

Fallow calls for help, the other patrons gasp, and one tries to give him the Heimlich maneuver, crashing to the floor and creating a mess. Ruskin lies on the floor, his shirt pulled up over his belly, dying. The diners avert their eyes as they try to eat. The wait staff is distraught—Madame Tacaya is coming! When the police and paramedics arrive, the maître d’ screeches at them to get the body out. In the end he is taken out on a stretcher through a window in the women’s restroom. The waiter tries to give Fallow the check for the meal. Disgusted and broke, Fallow tells him to take it up with Ruskin. Just then, Madame Tacaya arrives.

 

The next day, The City Light runs an article on Ruskin’s death. The headline is death new york style, with the following subhead: society restaurant to tycoon: “kindly finish dying before madame tacaya arrives.” A second article, about Ruskin’s charter business, has the Muslim world up in arms. Gerald Steiner rubs his hands with glee.

         

Chapter 27: Hero of the Hive

The demonstrators gone, Sherman cuts down the number of bodyguards, but still fears going broke from the salary he pays them. Two days later, they have a dinner engagement at the di Duccis’, whose apartment Judy decorated. They hope that after the more recent news articles, public opinion will be in Sherman’s favor. And after all, Sherman is not guilty, so why should he hide?

 

At the di Duccis’, Sherman fears an ugly scene. It’s the Bavardages’ party all over again, a hive of mindless chatter and grins, with the social X-rays and Lemon Tarts clustering about. But this time Judy and Sherman are welcomed, even celebrated. The novelist Nunnally Voyd, who had ignored them at the Bavardages’, commiserates with Sherman. The press, he says, think they’re bloodthirsty tigers, but they’re really fruit flies: “Once they get the scent, they hover, they swarm.” Sherman feels grateful. So what if this man is gay—he’s a brother in suffering!

 

Warmed by the sympathetic attention, Sherman regales his listeners with a humorous, and embellished, story about his stay in jail. Everyone laughs appreciatively and drinks it all in. They even ask about his work as a bond salesman. Based on the newspaper stories, he realizes, they think he’s some kind of ultra-rich tycoon. Sherman senses that some of the Lemon Tarts are his for the asking. In the car ride home, he shares his surprise and delight with Judy, but she remarks unsmilingly, “You’re easily pleased.”

 

The Mayor of New York again reappears at the end of this chapter. Since the mob scene in Harlem, he’s been busy creating special awards to give out to members of the black community in a bid to win back their support. Now he meets with his assistant, who tells him what to do about the Lamb case. He’s to call for a thorough investigation of the case and say that McCoy’s wealth and position cannot prevent justice from being done. The Mayor thinks this is unfair to McCoy, but he knows he’d better say the politically correct thing or risk having Bacon after him again.

 

The Bishop of the Episcopal Church, an urbane African-American man, comes to request help from the Mayor. Membership in one of their churches is declining and they want to sell it to a developer, but the community wants it declared a landmark so it can never be demolished. The Mayor calls the Landmarks Commissioner and tells him to lay off. Then he has his own favor to ask: he’d like the Bishop to serve on a special blue-ribbon commission on crime. Having a well-educated black man like the Bishop on his team would be the perfect publicity for the Mayor. But the Bishop apologizes, saying he cannot accept the position because it conflicts with his duties for the diocese. The Mayor is annoyed, certain that the Bishop refused the post for political reasons. After he leaves, the Mayor calls the Commissioner again and tells him declare that church a landmark.

 

Analysis of Chapters 26–27

The death scene of Arthur Ruskin at a trendy Manhattan bistro is an example of black humor, and spells out the age-old moral of the folly of pride. Although he’s boorish and vain, and loves going on about himself, Ruskin is portrayed rather sympathetically in the scene. His smile on entering the restaurant is compared to that of a boy at his own birthday party, making his vanity seem childlike and poignant. Thus when his death comes, the reader is able to pity him as well as laugh at the bizarre black humor of the situation.

 

“La Boue d’Argent” means “The Mud of Money” in French, not “The Silver Boar” as the statue suggests. The name of the restaurant sheds light on the intended message. Money is dirty; money corrupts people. The restaurant owners, much like the rest of high society, have had their values corrupted by the lure of money. Thus, they only care about Ruskin while he is a live, fat wallet. Dead on the floor, he becomes a liability. 

 

The scene in which Arthur is paraded back through the dining room on its way out the ladies’ room window recalls the “Masque of the Red Death” speech at the Bavardages’ party: “Ruskin’s stricken face and white gut were now being paraded before their very tables . . . the grim remains of the joys of the flesh. It was as if some plague, which they all thought had been eradicated at last, had sprung back up in their midst, more virulent than ever.” Both scenes illustrate the message that no matter how rich you are, you’re never invulnerable.

 

At the Bavardages’ party, Judy appeared to be totally taken in by all the socialites’ superficial talk, while Sherman hung back and was cynical. This time, Judy is revealed to be more cynical than Sherman. She realizes that the socialites at the di Duccis’ are not really Sherman’s friends and supporters, but just morbidly curious about his situation. 

 

The novel comes full circle with another view of the Mayor of New York. He is seen as a typical sleazy politician; he hands out meaningless plaques and awards to win the support of African-Americans, but he won’t do anything really meaningful unless he gets a payoff or political favor in return.

 

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