Bonfire of the Vanities: Prologue and Chapters 1-2

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Prologue: Mutt on Fire

The book opens in Harlem, where the unnamed mayor of New York is holding a town-hall meeting. The predominately African-Americancrowd is not friendly, and the white, Jewish mayor is heckled and booed as a “Chuck” or “Charlie”—a white bigot. As the Mayor attempts to take control and share budget statistics with them, someone shouts, “Don’t percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!” Others yell out anti-Semitic epithets: “Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Hymie!” Shocked, the Mayor begins to suspect he has been set up, that the hecklers in the crowd are no ordinary citizens but shills placed there by Reverend Bacon, a vocal African-American activist who would like nothing better to see the Mayor out of office. Now, with the TV cameras rolling, he realizes to his horror that the bad press will very likely cost him the next election.

 

Angrily, the Mayor thinks of all the smug white New Yorkers who will watch the melee on the news and enjoy the thrill of it. Some of the hecklers make it onstage, and one throws a mayonnaise jar. The Mayor’s security convinces him to make a retreat. A big man with a gold earring gets in the Mayor’s face and screams insults, but is shoved aside by one of the bodyguards. Safely out of the mob, the Mayor’s heart sinks. Why did he turn tail and run? Now he has lost for certain.

 

Chapter 1: The Master of the Universe

Sherman McCoy, the novel’s main character, is about to leave his luxurious Park Avenue apartment to take his dachshund for a walk. Sherman cuts an imposing figure at 38, tall and handsome, and boasting an “aristocratic chin.” As a bond salesman on Wall Street, he brings in such a fabulous amount of money that he has begun to think of himself as a “Master of the Universe.” However, he doesn’t seem to be much of a master at this moment, as his stubborn dog Marshall, who doesn’t want to go out, runs away when he tries to fasten the leash. While Sherman struggles, his wife Judy comes to suggest that she take the dog out instead while he reads a book to their six-year-old daughter, Campbell. Sherman snaps at her in anger and heads out the door, feeling guilty.

 

In fact, Sherman is headed out to call his mistress, Maria Ruskin, on the telephone. As a Master of the Universe, he feels entitled to have a mistress. After all, his wife is forty years old and not as attractive as she once was. He resents Judy, too, for becoming just like all the other middle-aged society ladies of New York, who talk on and on about interior design and landscape gardening. Sherman calls them “social x-rays” because they keep themselves so thin he can see right through to the bones.

 

But when Sherman reaches the public telephone, after dragging the recalcitrant dog through the rain, he accidentally calls his own home and asks for Maria. His wife recognizes his voice. Horrified, Sherman hangs up on her. He calls Maria and tells her he will be right over.

Maria’s apartment, which she illegally sublets from a friend, is only a few blocks away. The sexy, twenty-something Maria has secretly taken this apartment to have time away from her wealthy 71-year-old financier husband, Arthur Ruskin, and it has become Sherman and Maria’s love nest. As she opens the door, Sherman admires Maria’s gorgeous body, her dark bobbed hair, and her beautiful face with its high cheekbones. She, however, laughs when she sees the rain-soaked, bedraggled Sherman. She is eager to show him a new painting on her wall by Filippo Chirazzi, an Italian artist who is becoming hot in New York. Sherman doesn’t like the painting and is too worried about the mistaken phone call he made to his wife to care about anything else, anyway. Anxiously, he tells Maria about his blunder, but she laughs it off. Infidelity isn’t such a big deal; she never hides her affairs from her husband. In any case, she says, as long as Sherman’s already in trouble, he might as well do something wrong to deserve it . . . and before he knows it, he’s in bed with Maria.

 

Returning to the apartment, Sherman confronts his agonized, tearful wife and denies everything. She doesn’t believe him, and goes crying off to bed. Sherman thinks resentfully about Judy. She is the daughter of a Midwestern history professor—a nobody compared to Sherman’s father, a prominent, aristocratic New York lawyer—and uses his money to decorate their apartment and get into a better social crowd. He wishes he had listened to his parents, who warned him to marry someone younger, someone richer, someone from a high-class family. Still, he and Judy were in love once, and now he feels rotten for hurting her.

 

Chapter 2: Gibraltar

Lawrence “Larry” Kramer, a 32-year-old Jewish lawyer working as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, wakes up from a sexy dream about a girl with brown lipstick. The first thing he sees is the decidedly unsexy view of his wife, Rhoda, awkwardly clambering out of bed. Rhoda has recently given birth to their son, Joshua, and her figure is not what it was. Although he loves his wife, Kramer reflects that she is beginning to look exactly like her mother—the same reddish hair, freckles, and chubby face.

 

A prim English nanny, hired by Kramer’s mother-in-law, is temporarily staying in the Kramers’ living room to help with the baby. Kramer is embarrassed to have the nanny see the “dump” they live in. Actually, their tiny apartment is a coveted find in their neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the rent is so high they can barely afford it. Kramer and Rhoda’s combined annual income is $56,000, or $41,000 after deductions—an amount Sherman McCoy can earn in just one day as commission on a bond deal.

 

Kramer eyes himself in the bathroom mirror, worrying that he is losing the chiseled muscles he’s so proud of. He hasn’t been able to work out recently because there is no space in the apartment with the nanny there.

As Kramer gets ready for work, the riot in Harlem is shown on the television news. The nanny is disgusted and comments that black people in America “don’t know how well off they are.” Kramer and his wife exchange glances over her comment, feeling smugly superior to the bigoted nanny.

 

Kramer takes the subway to work in the Bronx, wearing an old raincoat and sneakers and carrying his dress shoes in a plastic shopping bag. He hopes that his rather scruffy appearance will deter would-be muggers who roam the trains. On his way to the station, he happens to see one of his former law school classmates, expensively dressed, getting into an Audi. Kramer avoids him, embarrassed to be seen in shabby clothes. His classmate has obviously gotten rich working in a big Manhattan law firm, while Kramer himself is barely getting by working in the Bronx.

 

On the train, people avoid eye contact. Three African-American boys in black thermal jackets and sneakers stroll through the aisle with an affected strut Kramer thinks of as the “Pimp Roll.” He tenses up, flexing his powerful neck muscles, but nothing happens. Still, he is relieved when he reaches his subway stop, the 161st Street station.

 

Coming out of the subway, Kramer surveys the Grand Concourse, the main thoroughfare of the Bronx. Once envisioned by Jewish-Americans who settled there as the Bronx’s version of Park Avenue, it has become seedy and crime-ridden. At the top of the hill, Kramer sees the Bronx County Building, the courthouse where he works. It is still a glorious edifice, adorned with classical figures in sculpture and bas-relief—a temple of Justice and Law standing in a lawless urban jungle, the Rock of Gibraltar in a perilous Sargasso Sea.

 

Corrections Department vans line up to bring in prisoners to the Bronx County Supreme Court. Kramer thinks of these prisoners, nearly all of them African-American and Latino men, as the “chow”—the meat that feeds the criminal justice system. Kramer has begun to have his doubts about the system. What does it all really accomplish? As he thinks to himself, he sees Judge Myron Kovitsky, a bald, wiry Jewish man of about sixty, arriving in his old boat of a car. Prisoners inside one of the vans begin to taunt the two men with insults. Kramer, mortified, moves to get inside as quickly as possible, but the steely-eyed judge makes a beeline for the van, confronting and cowing the prisoners. Kramer, beaming with admiration, congratulates the judge on shutting them up. Kovitsky, however, is still disturbed by the venomous anti-Semitic epithets the prisoners used.

 

Inside the building, an alarm goes off, possibly warning of an escaped prisoner. The two men, chatting in the lobby, barely register it; it’s just the normal state of red alert in the chaotic Bronx County Building. Kramer grows more depressed, and decides the time has come to seize life, to rise up above all this mess. He thinks of the girl with brown lipstick.

 

Analysis of the Prologue and Chapters 1–2

The Prologue and Chapters 1–2 introduce the setting of Wolfe’s novel—New York City in the 1980s—and the themes of racial and ethnic hatred, vanity, and greed. Wolfe’s goal was to write a novel of social realism about modern-day urban America in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists Dickens, Zola, and Balzac. Asked about his work in an interview, Wolfe said, “The approach to the novel today should be journalistic. I wanted this novel to be about New York high and low. So for the high end of the scale, I went down to Wall Street to do reporting. For the low end, I went to the South Bronx.” Sherman McCoy’s working world is Wall Street; Larry Kramer’s is the Bronx. It is through these two main characters that Wolfe introduces the two separate worlds of the novel, which are destined to collide.

 

The Prologue illustrates the volatile state of New York City in the 1980s as racial and ethnic tensions threaten to splinter it apart. Whites are becoming a minority in the urban areas, making it difficult for them to continue holding all the positions of power. (Incidentally, the first black mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, would be elected to office in 1990.) As the people demand leaders of color, opportunists like Reverend Bacon rise up, claiming to be working in the people’s interest but really just fanning the flames of racism for their own personal gain. Both sides must become expert media manipulators to win at this game, and it’s all-out war. The result is a laughable circus—the “people” (shills for Bacon) accuse the Mayor of racism against them, while at the same time shouting anti-Semitic slurs at the Mayor. It’s ironic, it’s ridiculous, it’s petty, and for Tom Wolfe, it perfectly encapsulates the low level of discourse on racism in America.

 

What happens to the Mayor onstage foreshadows what will happen in the rest of the novel. The stage is set for a bonfire—the city is about to explode in the flames of greed and racial hatred. The first two chapters describe the scene in high-class and low-class neighborhoods. In the Bronx, even the police don’t want to go out to eat their lunch in the park because of the high rate of crime. By contrast, Sherman goes walking his dog and making phone calls at night in the posh part of Manhattan, and is put on red alert by the sight of just one black boy walking by. New York City in the 1980s was considerably more dangerous than it is in the twenty-first century, and Wolfe’s description of the crime-riddled Bronx and dangerous subways would not be as accurate today.

 

White male vanity is the first thing that’s going to be burned in this bonfire. All three men in this first part of the book—the Mayor (a minor character), Sherman McCoy, and Larry Kramer—are tragicomic antiheroes puffed up with pride and headed for a fall. The Mayor, on confronting the mob in Harlem, can scarcely believe he is being heckled: “He’s the mayor of the greatest city on earth—New York! Him!” Sherman, with his aristocratic chin and his vanity swelling up along with his fat commission checks, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe.” And Kramer becomes almost a caricature as he self-consciously flexes his neck muscles in order to look tough on the subway: “An ox, a stud like him…he’d be the last person in the world they’d choose to tangle with.” Wolfe shows how ridiculous their pride is by putting the men in situations that make them look ridiculous: the Mayor of New York is hit with a mayonnaise jar, the Master of the Universe can’t even master his little dog, and the tough young prosecutor bumbles out of bed, hiding an erection under his bathrobe, as his kid’s music box plays “Send in the Clowns” (perhaps a reference to the circus Kramer will later create in the courtroom).

 

These men are not heroes; in fact, they’re really cowards, with nothing to back up their big egos. The Mayor turns tail when the town hall meeting gets ugly, McCoy hangs up on his wife, and Kramer, the tough young prosecutor, runs scared from a vanful of prisoners. In contrast to these three weak men is the figure of Judge Myron Kovitsky. Though not without his own flaws (he’s got a pretty big ego of his own), Kovitsky has both moral fiber and backbone. He’s a true warrior for justice and a hero of the book.

 

Greed and excess form another main theme in Bonfire. The 1980s were a decade known for money fever. Wall Street was booming, and the rich became richer than ever before. Those who had it flaunted it. Those who didn’t have it increasingly ran up credit card debt in order to keep up the lifestyle. Both Sherman and Kramer are good examples of what Wolfe dubbed the “Me Generation.” Taught to love themselves, they go a little too far and think they should indulge every whim. Sex, money, status and recognition—they want more, more, more, and it’s never enough. The difference between Sherman and Kramer is that Sherman really has it all, and Kramer wants it. Sherman has a palatial apartment, but Kramer lives in a tiny “ant farm.” Sherman can make $50,000 in one day; Kramer and his wife combined can’t net that in a year. Sherman has a gorgeous mistress; Kramer has a fantasy.

 

Judy and Maria are the two main female characters in the tale. They could be said to represent types—the aging socialite wife and the sexy young mistress—with few nuances to give them depth. The women remain relatively minor since Wolfe never allows readers to get inside their heads and hear what they are thinking. Instead, the book is told in a limited third-person point of view that reveals the thoughts and feelings of three white male characters: Sherman, Kramer, and a journalist named Peter Fallow who will be introduced later.

 

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