Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 5-6

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Chapter 5: The Girl with the Brown Lipstick

Larry Kramer enters his office at the Bronx County Building, which he shares with Ray Andriutti and Jimmy Caughey, fellow assistant district attorneys in the Homicide Bureau. The three talk about their boss, District Attorney Richard A. “Abe” Weiss. They’ve nicknamed him Ahab because of his obsession with the “Great White Defendant.” The D.A. is up for reelection soon, and would love to prove to his Bronx constituency that he doesn’t only prosecute black and Latino defendants, but white ones, too. In fact, all the attorneys feel the same; they all want to prove to themselves that the criminal justice system is evenhanded, doling out justice to powerful whites as well as poor, oppressed minorities. Kramer is anxious to advance his career. He’s tired of cases that never get noticed—poor people killing poor people—what he calls “garbage collection.”

 

As one of the few Jews in Homicide, Kramer both despises and envies Italians and Irish like Andriutti and Caughey. Kramer’s parents taught him that the goyim (non-Jews) are animals, but Kramer is proud to work with them in the Homicide Division, where their animal instincts are an asset. He notes that the Irish left their indelible stamp on New York law enforcement.

 

As the men talk, a call comes in about a boy in the hospital who claims he was hit by a Mercedes. The detective in the case wants to talk to Bernie to find out whether they should investigate the tip. This will prove to be Kramer’s ticket to fame, but he doesn’t know it yet.

 

Kramer goes to the courtroom, and the reader is shown a glimpse of the drama that unfolds in a criminal court. The vast majority of all cases are never brought to trial; they are either thrown out or plea bargained. Today, for instance, Judge Kovitsky sees a young African-American man named Lockwood who is guilty of armed robbery. The boy refuses to do the prudent thing—plead guilty for a reduced sentence—and the judge gives him a good lecture and sends him home to think about it.

 

Late in the morning, the judge reaches the case of Herbert 92X, now in its third day. Herbert 92X is an African-American man being tried for manslaughter. He shot an innocent bystander in a bar while trying to defend himself from gang members he mistakenly thought were going to attack him. Herbert, who styles himself a radical Muslim, insists on being called “Herbert 92X” (like Malcolm X) and reads aloud to the court lengthy passages from the Koran. When the judge asks him to stop reading, he protests that his freedom of religion has been violated. Kramer, the prosecutor, argues passionately for Herbert’s conviction because he’s hoping to impress one of the jurors—the sexy girl with brown lipstick, Shelly Thomas.

 

Kramer and the others eat lunch at their desks; nobody leaves the building for fear of being mugged. Kramer answers another call from a detective at the hospital with the injured boy, Henry Lamb, aged 18. Lamb arrived in the hospital last night and was treated for a broken wrist. The next morning, he was brought back to the hospital suffering from a concussion, and slipped into a coma, not likely to recover. Before losing consciousness, Henry told his mother he was hit by a Mercedes. They are calling it a hit-and-run accident. Kramer thinks to himself that the case is a “piece a shit.” He writes a note about the case for his boss, Bernie Fitzgibbon, head of the Homicide Division.

 

Chapter 6: A Leader of the People

The next morning at Pierce & Pierce, Sherman finds himself, for the first time ever, unable to concentrate on work. He keeps thinking about the accident and wonders if he should call his lawyer. To his relief, there is nothing about an accident in the newspaper, The City Light. Any scandal could make the Giscard scheme fail, and he knows it. He needs this money. There’s the $1.8 million loan for the apartment on which he pays $21,000 a month, the house in Southampton, entertaining and dining, Campbell’s private school, Judy’s decorating, the servants, the cars, and so much more that is needed to keep up their lifestyle that he’s actually going broke on a million dollars a year.

 

Distracted by worries, Sherman makes a blunder: he sells three million dollars of stock in United Fragrance, mistakenly believing the shares are going up.

 

Meanwhile, two young white men visit Reverend Bacon at his offices in a beautifully restored Harlem mansion. They are Edward Fiske III, the Yale-educated Community Outreach Director of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and a lawyer named Moody. Fiske is in the awkward position of asking Reverend Bacon what happened to $350,000 the diocese donated to build the Little Shepherd Day Care Center in Harlem. Months have gone by, and no center is actually being built. In fact, the diocese learned, the center’s license was turned down by the city weeks ago on the grounds that the “directors” Bacon assigned to run it are all either on parole or have criminal records. The whole thing appears to have been a scam, and the diocese wants its money back—but Reverend Bacon is not cooperating. 

 

Wolfe gives readers a good look at Reverend Reginald Bacon, dressed ostentatiously in a black double-breasted suit and a gold watch. His haughty manner makes the timid Fiske uneasy. Fiske thinks to himself that the epithet “Reverend Bacon” is grammatically incorrect—the correct phrase is “the Reverend Mr. Bacon.” An educated man should know that. From another room, Fiske hears gospel music. Reverend Bacon’s late mother, Adela Bacon, was a well-known gospel singer. It was she who founded the Gates of the Kingdom Church and ordained her son as minister. Fiske had admired Adela Bacon and was pleased to have a connection with her son. Now the scales are falling from Fiske’s eyes.

 

As Fiske nervously presses Reverend Bacon, making nice, Moody steps in and speaks for the law. They have a legal problem to solve so that the Day Care Center can be built. Reverend Bacon looks down at them both as if they are hamsters in a cage. He comments menacingly that he hopes their car will be safe outside, and sends his hulking bodyguard, Buck, out to see about it. (Buck is the man with the gold earring who screamed at the mayor in the Prologue, and appears everywhere Bacon needs a heavy.)

 

Now Reverend Bacon explains it to them clearly. They’re not investing in a Day Care Center. They’re investing in “steam control.” They’re making an investment to appease the righteous anger of oppressed Harlem, which is steaming up now and almost ready to blow.

 

Bacon owns and controls a variety of so-called nonprofits—the All People’s Solidarity, whose goal is to topple the mayor; the Open Gates Employment Coalition, who protest businesses that don’t hire whites; and the Third World Anti-Defamation League, who protest “racist” portrayals of minorities in movies and other media. As they sit in his office, Fiske and Moody hear Bacon on the phone talking about his new organization, Urban Guaranty Investments. This clearly is where the money has gone—not into Harlem but into Wall Street.

 

Just before the two men leave in defeat, Reverend Bacon receives a phone call from Annie Lamb. She is the mother of Henry Lamb, the boy hit by Sherman’s car, and is afraid to go to the police because she fears being arrested over parking tickets. Bacon hustles Fiske and Moody out of his office, saying he has important business to tend to.

 

Fiske realizes that he has been swindled. If he can’t recover the lost money, he is going to look like a fool.

 

Analysis of Chapters 5–6

Chapter 5 is a grand tour of the criminal justice system in the Bronx. Wolfe researched this part of his book by spending hours watching court proceedings at the Manhattan County Courthouse. Here in the County Building, vans ferry in the “chow,” the mostly black and Latino prisoners that feed the system. Most of the crimes result from stupidity, incompetence, or senseless cruelty. There’s a constant backlog of cases, the vast majority of which never go to trial because the judge has no time. Many decisions are made based on political expediency rather than in the interest of justice. A young Ivy-trained lawyer’s passion is inspired not by higher ideals and the righteousness of his case but by his desire to seduce a sexy juror. All in all, it’s a dismal picture of what actually goes on inside the hallowed Temple of Justice.

 

Wolfe continues to satirize Americans’ preoccupation with race, ethnicity, and class. Wasp Sherman McCoy is on red alert when he sees black faces; Maria, the Southern belle, puts her prejudice in more blatantly racist terms. Kramer, who is Jewish, looks down on the Italians and Irish as “animals”—although paradoxically, he also lusts after Italian women and worships tough Irish men. Abe Weiss is looking for the “Great White Defendant” in order to prove that he’s not racist, but this of course makes him guilty of a bias against whites. Wolfe tells the racial or ethnic background of nearly every character that comes onstage.

 

Through Herbert 92X, Wolfe satirizes hypocrites who try to make religion into a political issue. Herbert 92X styles himself a Muslim (although he worked for a liquor distributor, something no religious Muslim would do) and insists on reading from the Koran at court. When he’s asked to stop, he screeches that the judge is violating his freedom of religion and moves for a mistrial.  

 

At the end of Chapter 5, the identity of the boy hit by Sherman’s car is revealed for the first time. His name, Henry Lamb, is significant as he will be the sacrificial lamb on the bonfire of this story. It is still not clear, however, whether the boy was really an innocent lamb in the whole situation, or a would-be robber. More will be revealed about him later.

 

Chapter 6 gives readers a good look into the machinations of Reverend Reginald Bacon. Bacon poses as a man of God, but he’s really a hustler who plays upon white guilt to get money for himself and his political machine. Bacon preaches against the White Capitalist Establishment, using the key words of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s to stir up people’s emotions. But it’s all an act. Bacon is actually a capitalist himself who has taken money from the Episcopal Church and invested it in the bond market. His so-called nonprofit organizations are really just vehicles for extorting money—his name, Bacon, refers to the pork-barrel money he’s able to get from the government for all his schemes. The street-smart Moody is able to see through Bacon’s act, but Fiske, who fancies himself an enlightened liberal capable of understanding Harlem’s sad plight, is befuddled by the Reverend’s doubletalk. If Fiske is still confused, the reader is not. Reverend Bacon will find some way to profit from the Henry Lamb case, sure enough.

 

A view of Sherman’s financial situation reveals that he is very vulnerable. He’s got a $1.8 million loan for his apartment and, typical of the “Me” Generation, he’s living way beyond his means. If he has to pay expensive legal fees or is sued, Sherman will very quickly be ruined.

 

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