The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a novel by Tom Wolfe in which Sherman McCoy must deal with the fallout of a hit-and-run car accident that results in the death of Harold Lamb.

  • Wealthy investment banker Sherman McCoy and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, are the perpetrators of a hit-and-run car accident in which Harold Lamb is gravely injured.
  • Peter Fallow, an alcoholic journalist, and Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunistic preacher, hype up the case after Lamb identifies McCoy.
  • McCoy is put on trial for manslaughter after Lamb dies. Ruskin, despite being the one driving at the time, refuses to admit her own guilt.

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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.

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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 black youth and driving off without stopping. To further dramatize the contrast, Lamb is falsely described as a model youth and an honor student.

The police are forced to investigate because of the publicity and the public outcry fueled by the Reverend Reginald Bacon, an opportunist who blackmails wealthy liberals with threats of mob violence. When the police get around to Sherman, he breaks down and admits his involvement but does not implicate Maria.

During the rest of the novel, Sherman is processed through a cynical legal system in which he stands out conspicuously as the “Great White Defendant.” The prosecution wishes to make political capital out of convicting him; the defense wishes to milk Sherman for as much money as possible. Ironically, no one really cares about the truth but only about capitalizing on the situation.

Sherman is thrown into cells with hardened criminals, most of whom are ignorant members of the underclass. Having been educated in the best schools and sheltered from the cruel realities of life, Sherman is horrified by the conditions he sees. The experience toughens him and teaches him the need to fight for himself in a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world.

Sherman quickly loses his job, because his company is afraid of adverse publicity. Without his big paychecks, he is driven to the brink of bankruptcy. He is forced to sell his expensive cooperative Park Avenue apartment, but the proceeds are tied up in a civil suit by Lamb’s mother and a real-estate broker. Maria Ruskin refuses to corroborate Sherman’s account of the hit-and-run incident or to admit she was driving on the night in question.

His first trial on a charge...

(The entire section contains 1728 words.)

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