The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe

Clock Icon 10 minute read

The Bonfire Of The Vanities

Prologue: Mutt on Fire

“And then say what? say, ‘forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem—’ ”

tell you what—”

“ ‘Chuck come up to Harlem and—’ ”

tell you what—”

“Say, ‘Chuck come up to Harlem and gonna take care a business for the black community’?”

That does it.

Heh-heggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

It’s one of those ungodly contralto cackles somewhere out there in the audience. It’s a sound from down so deep, from under so many lavish layers, he knows exactly what she must look like. Two hundred pounds, if she’s an ounce! Built like an oil burner! The cackle sets off the men. They erupt with those belly sounds he hates so much.

Hehhehheh…unnnnhhhh-hunhhh…That’s right…Tell ’em, bro…Yo…”

Chuck! The insolent—he’s right there, right there in the front—he just called him a Charlie! Chuck is short for Charlie, and Charlie is the old code name for a down-home white bigot. The insolence of it! The impudence! The heat and glare are terrific. It makes the Mayor squint. It’s the TV lights. He’s inside a blinding haze. He can barely make out the heckler’s face. He sees a tall silhouette and the fantastic bony angles the man’s elbows make when he throws his hands up in the air. And an earring. The man has a big gold earring in one ear.

tell you what. Okay? I’ll give you the actual figures. Okay?”

“We don’t want your figures, man!”

Okay?”

“Don’t you shine us up with no more your figures!”

Unnnnh-unnnnh-unnnh…Tell ’im, bro…Y’ on the case…Yo, Gober!”

“In this administration—and it’s a matter of public record—the percentage of the total annual budget for New York City—”

“Aw, maaaan,” yells the heckler, “don’t you stand there and shine us up with no more your figures and your bureaucratic rhetoric!”

They love it. The insolence! The insolence sets off another eruption. He peers through the scalding glare of the television lights. He keeps squinting. He’s aware of a great mass of silhouettes out in front of him. The crowd swells up. The ceiling presses down. It’s covered in beige tiles. The tiles have curly incisions all over them. They’re crumbling around the edges. Asbestos! He knows it when he sees it! The faces—they’re waiting for the beano, for the rock fight. Bloody noses!—that’s the idea. The next instant means everything. He can handle it! He can handle hecklers! Only five-seven, but he’s even better at it than Koch used to be! He’s the mayor of the greatest city on earth—New York! Him!

shut up for a minute!”

That startles the heckler. He freezes. That’s all the Mayor needs. He knows how to do it.

Okay?”

“Say, claque?” The man has had his wind knocked out, but he’s still standing up.

yourrr community, right here, Harlem.”

claque like a bone. “Ain’ nobody can eat statistics, man!”

“Tell ’im, bro…Yo…Yo, Gober!”

youuuuu think—”

jobs!”

Yo business. There’s some loudmouth way in back with a voice that cuts through everything.

“Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober!”

Goldberg.

“Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg!”

It stuns him. In this place, in Harlem! Goldberg is the Harlem cognomen for Jew. It’s insolent—outrageous!—that anyone throws this vileness in the face of the Mayor of New York City!

Boos, hisses, grunts, belly laughs, shouts. They want to see some loose teeth. It’s out of control.

“Do you—”

It’s no use. He can’t make himself heard even with the microphone. The hate in their faces! Pure poison! It’s mesmerizing.

“Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Hymie!”

Hymie! That business! There’s one of them yelling Goldberg and another one yelling Hymie. Then it dawns on him. Reverend Bacon! They’re Bacon’s people. He’s sure of it. The civic-minded people who come to public meetings in Harlem—the people Sheldon was supposed to make sure filled up this hall—they wouldn’t be out there yelling these outrageous things. Bacon did this! Sheldon fucked up! Bacon got his people in here!

A wave of the purest self-pity rolls over the Mayor. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the television crews squirming around in the haze of light. Their cameras are coming out of their heads like horns. They’re swiveling around this way and that. They’re eating it up! They’re here for the brawl! They wouldn’t lift a finger. They’re cowards! Parasites! The lice of public life!

In the next moment he has a terrible realization: “It’s over. I can’t believe it. I’ve lost.”

“No more your…Outta here…Boooo…Don’ wanna…Yo, Goldberg!”

Guliaggi, the head of the Mayor’s plainclothes security detail, is coming toward him from the side of the stage. The Mayor motions him back with a low flap of his hand, without looking at him directly. What could he do, anyway? He brought only four officers with him. He didn’t want to come up here with an army. The whole point was to show that he could go to Harlem and hold a town-hall meeting, just the way he could in Riverdale or Park Slope.

In the front row, through the haze, he catches the eye of Mrs. Langhorn, the woman with the shingle hairdo, the head of the community board, the woman who introduced him just—what?—minutes ago. She purses her lips and cocks her head and starts shaking it. This look is supposed to say, “I wish I could help you, but what can I do? Behold the wrath of the people!” Oh, she’s afraid like all the rest! She knows she should stand up against this element! They’ll go after black people like her next! They’ll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!

“Go on home!…Booooo…Yagggghhh…Yo!”

—is this what—”

nothing?

The whole hall appears to be jumping up and down. They’re waving their fists. Their mouths are open. They’re screaming. If they jump any higher, they’ll bounce off the ceiling.

money will keep it yours?

Third World?

You poor fatties! You marshmallows! Hens! Cows! You wait’ll you have a Reverend Bacon for a mayor, and a City Council and a Board of Estimate with a bunch of Reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other! You’ll get to know them then, all right! They’ll come see you! They’ll come see you at 60 Wall and Number One Chase Manhattan Plaza! They’ll sit on your desks and drum their fingers! They’ll dust out your safe-deposit boxes for you, free of charge—

me any longer! See how you like it then! And you let me stand here alone at this lectern with a goddamned asbestos ceiling coming down on my head—

“Boooo!…Yegggghhh!…Yaaaggghhh!…Yo!…Goldberg!”

There’s a terrific commotion on one side of the stage. The TV lights are right in his face. A whole lot of pushing and shoving—he sees a cameraman go down. Some of the bastards are heading for the stairs to the stage, and the television crews are in the way. So they’re going over them. Shoving—shoving somebody back down the stairs—his men, the plainclothes detail, the big one, Norrejo—Norrejo’s shoving somebody back down the stairs. Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor—a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting?

The goddamned lights! People are up on the stage…a lot of thrashing about…a regular melee…Norrejo grabs some big devil around the waist and sticks his leg behind him and throws him to the floor. The other two detectives, Holt and Danforth, have their backs to the Mayor. They’re crouched like blocking backs protecting a passer. Guliaggi is right beside him.

“Get behind me,” says Guliaggi. “We’re going through that door.”

Is he smiling? Guliaggi seems to have this little smile on his face. He motions his head toward a door at the rear of the stage. He’s short, he has a small head, a low forehead, small narrow eyes, a flat nose, a wide mean mouth with a narrow mustache. The Mayor keeps staring at his mouth. Is that a smile? It can’t be, but maybe it is. This strange mean twist to his lips seems to be saying: “It’s been your show up to now, but now it’s mine.”

Somehow the smile decides the issue. The Mayor gives up his Custer’s command post at the lectern. He gives himself over to this little rock. Now the others are closed in around him, too, Norrejo, Holt, Danforth. They’re around him like the four corners of a pen. People are all over the stage. Guliaggi and Norrejo are muscling their way through the mob. The Mayor is right on their heels. Snarling faces are all around him. There’s some character barely two feet from him who keeps jumping up and yelling, “You little white-haired pussy!” He keeps saying it. “You little white-haired pussy!”

Right in front of him—the big heckler himself! The one with the elbows and the gold earring! Guliaggi is between the Mayor and the heckler, but the heckler towers over Guliaggi. He must be six five. He screams at the Mayor, right in his face:

—oof!”

All at once the big son of a bitch is sinking, with his mouth open and his eyes bugged out. Guliaggi has driven his elbow and forearm into the man’s solar plexus.

Guliaggi reaches the door and opens it. The Mayor follows. He feels the other detectives pushing him through from behind. He sprawls against Guliaggi’s back. The guy’s a piece of stone!

knows. He knows even before his mind can put it all together.

“I did the wrong thing. I gave in to that little smile. I panicked. I’ve lost it all.”

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