The Bonfire of the Vanities

A Novel

Tom Wolfe

Picador

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-'"
"No, I'll tell you what-"
"'Chuck come up to Harlem and-'"
''I'll 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.
They go, "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.
The Mayor leans into the microphone and says, "No, I'll tell you
what. Okay? I'll give you the actual figures. Okay?"
"We don't want your figures, man!"
Man, he says! The insolence! "You brought it up, my friend. So
you're gonna get the actual figures. Okay?"
"Don't you shine us up with no more your figures!"
Another eruption in the crowd, louder this time: "Unnnnh-unnnnhunnnh
... Tell 'im, bra ... 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!
"All right! You've had your fun, and now you're gonna shut up for a
minute!"
That startles the heckler. He freezes. That's all the Mayor needs. He
knows how to do it.
"Youuuu asked meeeee a question, didn't you, and you got a bigggg
laugh from your claque. And so now youuuuu're gonna keep quiiiiet and
lissssten to the answer. Okay?"
"Say, claque?" The man has had his wind knocked out, but he's still
standing up.
"Okay? Now here are the statistics for youm community, right here,
Harlem."
"Say, claque?" The bastard has hold of this word claque like a bone.
"Ain' nobody can eat statistics, man!"
"Tell 'im, bra ... Yo ... Yo, Gober!"
"Let me finish. Do youuuuu think-"
"Don't percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!"
The crowd erupts again. It's worse than before. Much of it he can't
make out-interjections from deep in the bread basket. But there's this
Yo business. There's some loudmouth way in back with a voice that cuts
through everything.
"Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober!"
But he isn't saying Gober. He's saying 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!"
He tries the microphone again. "Is this what-is this what-"
Hopeless. Like yelling at the surf. He wants to spit in their eyes. He
wants to tell them he's not afraid. You're not making me look bad! You're
letting a handful of hustlers in this hall make all of Harlem look bad!
You let a couple of loudmouths call me Goldberg and Hymie, and you
don't shout them down-you shout me down! It's unbelievable! Do
you-you hardworking, respectable, God-fearing people of Harlem,
you Mrs. Langhorns, you civic-minded people-do you really think
they're your brothers! Who have your friends been all these years? The
Jews! And you let these hustlers call me a Charlie! They call me these
things, and you say 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.
It'll be on TV. The whole city will see it. They'll love it. Harlem rises
up! What a show! Not the hustlers and the operators and the players rise
up-but Harlem rises up! All of black New York rises up! He's only
mayor for some of the people! He's the mayor of White New York! Set
fire to the mutt! The Italians will watch this on TV, and they'll love it.
And the Irish. Even the Wasps. They won't know what they're looking at.
They'll sit in their co-ops on Park and Fifth and East Seventy-second
Street and Sutton Place, and they'll shiver with the violence of it and enjoy
the show. Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don't even
know, do you? Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open
your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think
money will keep it yours?
Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger
lawyers! It's the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians,
Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans,
Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians,
Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you
gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington
Heights, Fort Tryon-por que pagar mas! The Bronx-the Bronx is finished
for you! Riverdale is just a little freeport up there! Pelham
Parkway-keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn-your
Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope-little Hong Kongs,
that's all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica,
Ozone Park-whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave
Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about
that! And Staten Island! Do you Saturday do-it-yourselfers really think
you're snug in your little rug? You don't think the future knows how to
cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-bailers sitting on your
mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings
and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really
think you're impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who
have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves
from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you're insulated from
the 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-
Completely crazy, these things roaring through his head! Absolutely
paranoid! Nobody's going to elect Bacon to anything. Nobody's going to
march downtown. He knows that. But he feels so alone! Abandoned!
Misunderstood! Me! You wait'll you don't have me any longer! See how
you like it then! And you let me stand here alone at this lectern with a
god damned asbestos ceiling corning 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:
"Go on back-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!
They're going down a stairway. They're clattering on some metal
strips. He's in one piece. The mob isn't even on his heels. He's safe-his
heart sinks. They're not even trying to follow him. They never really
tried to touch him. And in that moment ... he 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."
"Prologue: Mutt on Fire" excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities copyright © 1987 by Tom Wolfe. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Picador and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.