Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 3-4

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Chapter 3: From the Fiftieth Floor

Sherman walks his daughter, Campbell, to the bus stop. He reflects that they are the perfect father and daughter: he with his noble head, aristocratic chin, and expensive British suit, and Campbell with her golden hair, adorable face, and private-school uniform. He is taken aback when his daughter solemnly asks, “Daddy, what if there isn’t any God?” He ducks the question, telling her without much conviction that of course there is, and is relieved when, with childish caprice, she drops the matter and brings up a bicycle another little girl has gotten. At the bus stop, he notices another child’s mother and admires her sexy body.

 

Soon, Sherman’s spirits sink as he remembers his blunder last night. What will it do to Campbell if he and Judy divorce? For a moment he considers going back home to beg forgiveness. But then he thinks of the big deal in gold-backed bonds he is in the midst of pulling off at work. The investment firm of Pierce & Pierce frowns on lateness, so he must not delay. Continuing to work he sees another sexy woman, and sexy advertisements everywhere. Sex is in the air, there for the taking! How can he blame himself if he wants a part of it?

 

Sherman takes the taxi to work, preferring to “insulate” himself from the city. In this way, he is unlike his father. The former CEO of the prominent law firm of Dunning Sponget & Leach, Sherman’s father still makes a point of taking the subway to work every day. Sherman reflects that the old man, who preached against overspending, would die of shock if he knew that Sherman paid 2.6 million dollars for his apartment, 1.8 million of it in loans.

 

The investment-banking firm of Pierce & Pierce occupies five floors of a sixty-story skyscraper on Wall Street. Its lobby, featuring a fake fireplace with an antique mahogany mantle, looks like a room in an English mansion. It reflects the taste of the company CEO, Eugene Lopwitz, who has a passion for all things British. But in the noisy, chaotic bond trading room, fifty floors above Manhattan, Ivy-educated young men scream into their phones. Sherman, the number one bond salesman, loves the roar of fear and greed.

 

Wall Street is the epicenter of the greed and excess of the 1980s: “If you weren’t making $250,000 a year within five years, then you were either grossly stupid or grossly lazy… By age thirty, $500,000—and that sum had the taint of the mediocre. By age forty you were either making a million a year or you were timid and incompetent. Make it now! That motto burned in every heart….”

 

Sherman has been setting up a deal to sell Giscards, gold-backed bonds issued by the French government. If his deal goes through and he sells these bonds, he stands to earn a commission of $1.75 million, enough to pay off his debt on the apartment. That afternoon he and his fellow traders have a conference call with their boss, Gene Lopwitz, who is at a cricket match in London. Sherman admires Gene for his power, money, and gorgeous trophy wife and hopes to be just like Gene in seven years. By the end of the day, Pierce & Pierce has netted a profit of almost $3 million. Pumped with adrenaline, Sherman again feels he is a Master of the Universe.

 

Chapter 4: King of the Jungle

Sherman arrives at the airport in his black Mercedes to pick up his mistress Maria Ruskin, who is returning from a trip to Italy. She is dressed glamorously and has a prodigious amount of luggage.

 

On the ride back to Manhattan, Maria tells Sherman about a British movie producer who chatted her up on the plane. He made Maria feel stupid because she had never heard of Christopher Marlowe, the British playwright of the 1500s who wrote Doctor Faustus. Sherman does know who he is, which makes Maria feel worse about herself and wonder if she really is stupid. Sherman doesn’t care if she is or not. Moments later, Sherman misses the turnoff for Manhattan. They are headed straight into the Bronx. Looking for a place to turn around, he keeps driving deeper into the Bronx. Sherman and Maria grow increasingly nervous seeing trash strewn about, dark faces, people drunk and brawling in the streets, rubble, and razor wire. When they finally get on a ramp leading back to the expressway, Sherman is forced to get out and move a tire left in the road. Two young African-American men approach them, and the larger of the two asks if he needs help. Fearing a setup, Sherman thrusts the tire at him and runs back to the car. Maria has scrambled into the driver’s seat and they take off, hitting the skinnier, scared-looking boy as they peel away.

 

After they recover from their panic and are back on the road to Manhattan, Sherman feels a wonderful relief and pride at having survived the incident, having protected Maria. But he still thinks of the boy they hit, and wonders, too—was it really a robbery? What if the boys really were trying to help?

 

Back at Maria’s apartment, Sherman suggests they call the police, but Maria persuades him to forget about it. The police, she points out, would love to get their hands on a couple of Park Avenue socialites, and there would be a scandal. Besides, they don’t even know if they hit the boy at all, and if they did, Maria was the one driving. Sherman relaxes and agrees. Soon, they are aroused by the memory of how they fought their way out of the “jungle,” and have wild and passionate sex. Sherman feels that he is “King of the Jungle.”

 

Sherman returns his car to the garage near his home. The garage attendant, an impertinent man who irritates Sherman by calling him “Sherm,” notices that Sherman’s coat is ripped. Sherman is nervous, feeling he has something to hide, but then he reassures himself. He is more than a Master of the Universe: he is a real man.

 

Analysis of Chapters 3–4

Sherman’s reaction when Campbell asks if there is a God reveals the Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) values he will pass on to her. He’s both disturbed and impressed by her question. God and spirituality have little or no place in his life, and in this post-sexual-revolution world, he certainly doesn’t live by Christian principles. He just does the dutiful, expected (but hypocritical) thing by sending his daughter to Sunday school, and that’s that. He is relieved when Campbell drops the “deep questions” and moves to something material, a bicycle her friend MacKenzie has gotten. It may be that materialism is the religion Sherman is more comfortable with.

 

The irony is not lost on Wolfe that the Wall Street traders are all Ivy leaguers, this generation’s Emersons and Thoreaus, living the motto Make it now! This is the new religion, practiced in the Temple of Greed. Wolfe drew upon his experience as a hedge fund investor to create a detailed picture of a Wall Street trading floor, with all its high energy and obscure financial jargon.

 

In Chapter 3, Sherman McCoy goes about his day completely insulated from the “bad” elements of society. He lives in an exclusive Park Avenue co-op, takes a taxi to work, avoiding subways; he works in a glass-enclosed skyscraper fifty floors above the street. But in Chapter 4, when he drives into the Bronx, he crosses that boundary—he’s no longer insulated; he’s vulnerable. He doesn’t know how to get around, how to handle himself. It’s Maria more than Sherman who really knows what to do about the situation on the expressway ramp; she takes control of the car and gets them out of the urban jungle. We’re meant to laugh when Sherman laps up Maria’s praise and thinks of himself as the “King of the Jungle.” It shows that Sherman is immature and naïve. His manhood hasn’t even begun to be tested yet.

 

Wolfe intentionally leaves it ambiguous at this point as to whether the boys were really a threat. The larger boy’s opening line: “Yo! Need some help?” might have been sincere, and the skinnier boy looked frightened. As the novel continues, more versions of the story will be given, but all the reader can know for sure is what Sherman saw. The ambiguity increases the dramatic tension of the story as the reader wonders, “What really happened?”

 

In Chapters 3 and 4, Sherman McCoy is shown at the pinnacle of his mountain. He inwardly crows that he’s “among the victors” and “overlooking the world.” This is classic hubris—the fatal flaw of pride, which brings the mighty down. Foreshadowing (the garage attendant saw him; he could be a witness), and a knowledge of how plots like this work, tell readers that Sherman won’t be on top for long.

 

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