The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary

Tom Wolfe

At a Glance

Upper-class investment banker Sherman McCoy thinks he's the "Master of the Universe." He leads a double life, maintaining a home with his wife and daughter while having an affair with Maria Ruskin, a rich, vain gold digger who's waiting for her elderly husband to die and leave her millions.

  • One night, Sherman and Maria are driving in New York City when they accidentally take the wrong exit on the expressway and wind up in a dangerous part of the Bronx. Sherman tries to get back onto the expressway, only to find the ramp blocked by garbage.
  • Sherman gets out of the car to clear the garbage. Two black youths approach him, seemingly with malintent. Maria jumps behind the wheel, yells at Sherman to get in, and speeds off, hitting one of the youths, Harold Lamb. Only later do they learn that Lamb has been hospitalized.
  • An alcoholic journalist and an opportunistic preacher drum up a media frenzy about the case after Lamb identifies his attacker as a rich man in a Mercedes Benz. Sherman is arrested and put on trial. When Lamb dies, Sherman's charge is changed to manslaughter. Sherman ends up penniless and alone, fighting for his life. Maria refuses to admit her guilt.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, an upper-middle-class white Wall Street investment banker who thinks he is on top of the world discovers that his fragile world is in imminent danger of destruction from within. At age thirty-eight, Sherman McCoy is near the peak of his career. He is married and has one young daughter whom he loves but rarely sees because of his hectic double life. In addition to being absorbed in business, he maintains an adulterous relationship with a sexy blonde who is having fun while waiting for her elderly multimillionaire husband to die.

One night while driving his mistress, Maria Ruskin, home, Sherman accidentally takes a wrong turn off the expressway and finds himself in one of the poorest and most dangerous slums of the Bronx. After finding his way back to the expressway, he discovers that the on-ramp is blocked with rubbish, and when he gets out to clear a path, he sees two black youths approaching with obviously sinister intentions. Maria, in panic, slides behind the wheel and calls for him to jump in. Backing up to get around the barricade, she bumps one of the youths and then speeds off without looking back.

They read in the next day’s newspaper that a teenager named Harold Lamb was felled by a hit-and-run driver at that location and is hospitalized in a coma. Lamb eventually provides a description and partial license number of the car that struck him. An alcoholic journalist named Peter Fallow publicizes the incident in his tabloid because of its dramatic potential—a rich white man in a Mercedes-Benz knocking down a poor...

(The entire section is 649 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Bonfire of the Vanities provides an interesting contrast to Wolfe’s earlier work. It is a huge, sprawling novel that runs to more than 650 pages, yet it reveals the same fascination with wealth, power, and status that dominated The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first book. In the novel, which was a long time in the making, Wolfe skillfully introduces a large and diverse cast of characters representing many levels of New York society while setting multiple, intersecting plots in motion. It begins as a meticulously constructed work. It is entertaining as satire and fascinating because of the way it weaves multiple satiric sketches into a unified but cumbersome plot that gains momentum like a runaway train. When it finally grinds to a halt, it seems to have run out of steam, almost dying of exhaustion.

The plot is so densely textured that it resists easy summary. The main plot follows the fortunes of Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old, Yale-educated bond dealer on Wall Street who considers himself a “Master of the Universe.” He lives in the “right” neighborhood, in a tenth-floor duplex on Park Avenue. He has a perfect wife and child, as well as a Mercedes and a mistress. The latter two possessions serve to bring about his ultimate downfall and disgrace.

Maria, his mistress, is married to a very wealthy husband. She is a well-traveled, ill-bred, faithless cracker bimbo. Maria spends a week in Italy, and Sherman agrees to meet her return flight at Kennedy Airport. Driving back to Manhattan, Sherman makes a wrong turn and ends up in the South Bronx. He gets lost in the land of the have-nots, and he and Maria end up in a blocked cul-de-sac. Getting out of his Mercedes to remove an obstacle, he notices two approaching black youths, one of whom offers help. Believing they are “setting him up,” Sherman scuffles with them. In a state of panic, he then runs for the car to effect a getaway. Maria, who is now driving, is also in a state of panic. She crashes the car into the boys, who have retaliated to Sherman’s attack. One of them, Henry Lamb, suffers a concussion and lapses into a coma. The muckraking press describes Lamb as an “honor student” and screams for racial justice.

Eventually Sherman will find himself charged with hit-and-run manslaughter, though, realistically, the wheels of justice turn slowly. At first, all that is known is that the boy was hit by a Mercedes registered in New York. The Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunist who chairs the “Harlem-based All Peoples’s Solidarity” movement, makes the most of the incident’s political...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)