Bonfire of the Vanities: Chapters 28-29

Chapter 28: Off to a Better PlaceMaria Ruskin has flown home to attend her husband’s funeral, and Tommy Killian convinces Sherman to go and see her there, wearing a wire. They need a statement from her saying she was behind the wheel. Sherman reluctantly agrees, feeling like a “loathsome animal” for deceiving Maria—and yet his fear prevents him from actually feeling guilt.Fallow, too, is present at the event. He notices that all the eyes of the socialites in attendance are not on the dead, but on the living who enter—which luminaries will show up? He watches as Maria Ruskin—the “Mystery Brunette,” enters, dressed head to toe in stylish black, accompanied by her husband’s family. Fallow finds the eulogies embarrassingly sentimental in what he thinks of as a typical American style. The service ends with a comically bad Hebrew cantor, and everyone is ushered into a back room to offer their condolences.Fallow sneaks in, and notices that Sherman McCoy, disguised in a hat and glasses, is just ahead of him. He strains to overhear snatches of Sherman’s conversation with Maria. Sherman is talking to her about the accident, and Fallow hears him say that Maria’s his only witness. She wants to talk about it later and begins to cry, reminding Sherman that her husband is dead. When Sherman walks away, Fallow comes up to offer his sympathy. He introduces himself as the man who was with Ruskin when he died, and reassures her that her husband didn’t suffer at all. She thanks him, but quickly grows nasty when he mentions Sherman McCoy and asks about the accident. Fallow can’t wait to get home and write the next story.
Chapter 29: The RendezvousKramer, Bernie, Martin, and Goldberg meet in Abe Weiss’s office. Martin and Goldberg have located more witnesses in the Lamb case—two crackheads who say the word on the street is that Roland Auburn was trying to show Lamb how to hijack a car that night. Lamb did nothing but watch, probably scared half to death, but not wanting to run because of what Auburn might do or say. Bernie thinks this story makes sense and would explain why Lamb didn’t tell the hospital he was hit by a car, but Kramer, protecting his witness, argues that the crackheads probably just read the story in the paper.The meeting is interrupted when someone brings in the news report about Maria Ruskin, “the Mystery Brunette.” Weiss instructs Kramer and the detectives to go to Maria right away and threaten her with a felony unless she testifies against Sherman.When they arrive at the Ruskins’ Fifth Avenue apartment building overlooking Central Park, the media is already stationed outside. They ask Kramer for comments, and he is inwardly elated to be recognized. Inside, the three men are dazzled by the luxury of the apartment, which is much more luxurious than the McCoys’. They find Maria flanked by her two Wasp lawyers: Tucker Trigg of Curry, Goad & Pesterall and Clifford Priddy, a well-known defense attorney for the rich. Kramer confronts Maria with the fact that a witness has identified her as being in the car, and gets a perverse pleasure when he sees her gulp of nervousness. This is the Power that only he can wield, the power of the government over its people! Kramer’s sense of inferiority to the well-dressed Wasp attorneys disappears, because he’s created a gulp of fright in that beautiful throat.Sherman goes to see Killian, who gives him the news that Maria wants a meeting with him. Still unaware of Maria’s visit from the assistant D.A., they hope they have a chance at entrapping her. Sherman will meet her, wearing a wire.That evening, Sherman meets Maria at her former hideout, the illegally sublet apartment. It had seemed charming and bohemian to him before, but now the place looks merely sad and run-down. Maria greets him buoyantly and reaches out for an embrace, but Sherman shifts his body awkwardly so she won’t feel the wire. They talk, and Maria tells him about the meeting with Kramer, saying what a “pompous little bastard” and “creep” she thinks he is. However, Sherman can’t get her to say anything incriminating. Soon she embraces him again, and before he can stop her, she finds the wire. Through stupidity, incompetence, and lust, he has ruined his last hope.
Analysis of Chapters 28–29Arthur Ruskin’s funeral is the “last party” for him, for Sherman, and for the book. Here the reader is treated to one last glimpse of the charming characters of Sherman and Judy’s world. Their eulogies are treacly and insincere, and everyone’s eyes are on, not the casket of the departed, but the door where more people are coming in:“The dear deceased, who reposeth in that box up front? Alas, the poor devil is done for, dead and gone. But the quick and the living—ah!—there you have something. They still burn with the lovely social wattage of the city! Not who leaveth, but who cometh in! Let us by all means illuminate them and measure their radiance!”

A fitting epitaph for Arthur Ruskin. Maria is the stereotypical, clichéd femme fatale in the funeral scene—she’s got the dead husband, the sexy black mourning clothes, and something to hide. If there was any doubt before, she really is dodging Sherman, and he knows it. Later, at their rendezvous, Maria is too savvy to let Sherman entrap her. It’s apparent that when she reaches out to embrace him, it’s because she wants to check to see if he’s wired. Sherman, however, interprets her move as a desire to be on his side, evidence of how vain and naïve Sherman still is. Falling for the oldest trick in the book, letting himself be seduced by a sexy woman. She’s the classic femme fatale, and he’s the classic dupe.Meanwhile, at the D.A.’s office, there is further evidence of the corrupt criminal justice system. Weiss and Kramer are clearly ignoring major holes in the case, and Bernie knows it. The witnesses are crackheads, but their story is believable—it makes sense that Roland Auburn was trying to hijack the car. Why else would two boys be standing on an expressway ramp, and why else would Henry Lamb have been afraid to tell his mother about it? This apparently true version of events makes Henry Lamb now certainly the (more or less) innocent Lamb in the story. However, it implicates Auburn, which is why Weiss and Kramer want it buried.