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Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)


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  The Bavardages' dining room walls had been painted with many coats of burnt-apricot lacquer, fourteen in all, they had glassy brilliance of a pond reflecting a campfire at night. room was a triumph of nocturnal reflections, one of many victories by Ronald Vine, whose forte was the creation of glitter without the use of mirrors. Mirror Indigestion was now regarded as one of the gross sins of the 1970s. So in the early 1980s, from Park Avenue to Fifth, from Sixty-second Street to Ninety-sixth, there had arisen the hideous cracking sound of acres of hellishly expensive plate-glass mirror being pried off the walls of the great apartments. No, in the Bavardages' dining room one's eyes fluttered in a cosmos of glints, twinkles, sparkles, highlights sheens, shimmering pools, and fiery glows that had been achieved in subtler ways, by using lacquer, glazed tiles in a narrow band just under the ceiling cornices, gilded English Regency furniture, silver candelabra, crystal bowls, School of Tiffany vases, and sculpted silverware that was so heavy the knives weighed on your fingers like saber handles.

The two dozen diners were seated at a pair of round Regency tables. The banquet table, the sort of Sheraton landing field that could seat twenty-four if you inserted all the leaves, had disappeared from the smarter dining rooms. One shouldn't be so formal, so grand. Two small tables were much better. So what if these two small tables were surrounded and bedecked by a buildup of objets, fabrics, and bibelots so lush it would have made the Sun King blink? Hostesses such as Inez Bavardage prided themselves on their gift for the informal and the intimate.

To underscore the informality of the occasion there had been placed, in the middle of each table, deep within the forest of crystal and silver, a basket woven from hardened vines in a highly rustic Appalachian Handicrafts manner. Wrapped around the vines, on the outside of the basket, was a profusion of wildflowers. In the center of the basket were massed three or four dozen poppies. This faux-naïf centerpiece was the trademark of Huck Thigg, the young florist, who would present the Bavardages with a bill for $3,300 for this one dinner party.

Sherman stared at the plaited vines. They looked like something dropped by Gretel or little Heidi of Switzerland at a feast of Lucullus. He sighed. All...too much. Maria was sitting next to him, on his right, chattering away at the cadaverous Englishman, whatever his name was, who was on her right. Judy was at the other table--but had a clear view of him and Maria. He had to talk to Maria about the interrogation by the two detectives--but how could he do it with Judy looking right at them? He'd do it with an innocuous party grin on his face. That was it! He'd grin through the whole discussion! She'd never now the difference...Or would she? ...Arthur Ruskin was at Judy's table...But thank God, he was four seats away from her...wouldn't be chatting with her...Judy was sitting between Baron Hochswald and some rather pompous-looking youngish man...Inez Bavardage was two seats away from Judy, and Bobby Shaflett was on Inez's right. Judy was grinning an enormous social grin at the pompous man...Hock hock hock hock hock hock hock hock hock hock! Clear above the buzz of the hive he could hear her laughing her new laugh...Inez was talking to Bobby Shaflett but also to the grinning social X ray seated to the Golden Hillbilly's right and to Nunnally Voyd, who was to the right of the X ray. Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw, sang the Towheaded Tenor... Hack hack hack hack hack hack, sang Inez Bavardage...Hock hock hock hock hock hock hock hock hock, bawled his own wife...

Leon Bavardage sat four chairs to Sherman's right, beyond Maria, the cadaverous Englishman, and the woman with the pink powder on her face, Barbara Cornagglia. In contrast to Inez Bavardage, Leon had all the animation of a raindrop. He had a placid, passive, lineless face, wavy blondish hair, which was receding, a long delicate nose, and very pale, almost livid skin. Instead of a 300-watt social grin, he had a shy, demure smile, which he was just now bestowing upon Miss Cornagglia.

Belatedly it occurred to Sherman that he should be talking to the woman on his left. Rawthrote, Mrs. Rawthrote; who in the name of God was she? What could he say to her? He turned to his left--and she was waiting. She was staring straight at him, her laser eyes no more than eighteen inches from his face. A real X ray with a huge mane of blond hair and a look of such intensity he thought at first that she must know something...He opened his mouth...he smiled...he ransacked his brain for something to say .... he did the best he could... He said to her, "Would you do me a great favor? What is the name of tbe gentleman to my right, the thin gentleman? His face is so familiar, but I can't think of his name for the life of me."

Mrs. Rawthrote leaned still closer, until their faces were barely eight inches apart. She was so close she seemed to have three eyes. "Aubrey Buffing," she said. Her eyes kept burning into his.

"Aubrey Buffing," said Sherman lamely. It was really a question.

'The poet," said Mrs. Rawthrote. "He's on the short list for the Nobel Prize. His father was the Duke of Bray." Her tone said, "How on earth could you not know that?"

Of course," said Sherman, feeling that in addition to his other sins he was also a philistine. "The poet."

"How do you think he looks?" She had eyes like a cobra's. Her face remained right in his. He wanted to pull back but couldn't. He felt paralyzed.

"Looks?" he asked.

"Lord Buffing," she said. "The state of his health."

"I--can't really say. I don't know him."

"He's being treated at Vanderbilt Hospital. He has AIDS." She pulled back a few inches, the better to see how this zinger hit Sherman.

"That's terrible!" said Sherman. "How do you know that?"

"I know his best boyfriend." She closed her eyes and then opened them, as if to say: "I know such things, but don't ask too many questions." Then she said, "This is entre nous." But I've never met you before! "Don't tell Leon or Inez," she continued. "He's their house guest--has been for the past two and a half weeks. Never invite an Englishman for a weekend. You can't get them out." She said this without smiling, as if it was the most serious advice she had ever offered free of charge. She continued her myopic study of Sherman's face.

In order to break eye contact, Sherman took a quick glance at the gaunt Englishman, Lord Buffing the Short-List Poet.

Don't worry," said Mrs. Rawthrote. "You can't get it at the table. If you could, we'd all have it by now. Half the waiters in New York are gay. You show me a happy homosexual, I'll show you a gay corpse." She repeated this mot farouche in the same rat-tat-tat voice as everything else, without a trace of a smile.

Just then a good-looking young waiter, Latin in appearance, gan serving the first course, which looked like an Easter egg under a heavy white sauce on a plateau of red caviar resting on a bed of Bibb lettuce.

"Not these," said Mrs. Rawthrote, right in front of the young man. "They work full-time for Inez and Leon. Mexicans, from New Orleans. They live in their place in the country and drive in to serve dinner parties." Then, without any preamble, she said, "What do you do, Mr. McCoy?"

Sherman was taken aback. He was speechless He was as flabbergasted as he had been when Campbell asked the same question. A nonentity, a thirty-five-year-old X ray, and yet... I want to impress her! The possible answers came thundering through his mind...I'm a senior member of the bond division at Pierce & Pierce... No...makes it sound as if he's a replaceable part in a bureaucracy and proud to be one...I'm the number one producer... No...sounds like something a vacuum-cleaner salesman would say...There's a group of us who make the major decisions... No...not accurate and an utterly gauche observation...I made $980,000 selling bonds last year... That was the true heart of the matter, but there was no way to impart such information without appearing foolish... I'm--a Master of the Universe! ... Dream on!--and besides, there's no way to utter it! ...So he said, "Oh, I try to sell a few bonds for Pierce & Pierce." He smiled ever so slightly, hoping the modesty of the statement would be talcen as a sign of confidence to burn, thanks to tremendous and spectacular achievements on Wall Street.

Mrs. Rawthrote lasered in on him again. From six inches away: "Gene Lopwitz is one of our clients."

"Your client?"

"At Benning and Sturtevant."

Where? He stared at her.

"You do know Gene," she said.

"Well, yes, I work with him."

Evidently the woman did not find that convincing. To Sherman's astonishment, she turned ninety degrees, without another word, to her left, where a jolly, florid, red-faced man was talking to the Lemon Tart who had arrived with Baron Hochswald. Sherman now realized who he was...a television executive named Rale Brigham. Sherman stared at Mrs. Rawthrote's bony vertebrae, where they popped up from out of her gown...Perhaps she had turned away for only a moment and would turn back to resume their conversation...But no...she had barged in on the conversation of Brigham and the Tart...He could hear her rat-tat-tat voice...She was leaning in on Brigham...lasering in...She had devoted all the time she cared to devote...to a mere bond salesman!

He was stranded again. To his right, Maria was still deep in conversation with Lord Buffing. He was facing social death once more. He was a man sitting utterly solo at a dinner table. The hive buzzed all around him. Everyone else was in a state of social bliss. Only he was stranded. Only he was a wallflower with no conversational mate, a social light of no wattage whatsoever in the Bavardage Celebrity Zoo...My life is coming apart!--and yet through everything else in his overloaded central nervous system burned the shame--the shame!--of social incompetence.

He stared at Huck Thigg's hardened vines in the center of the table, as if a student of floral arrangements. Then he put a smirk on his face, as if confidently amused. He took a deep gulp of wine and looked across to the other table, as if he had caught the eye of someone there...He smiled...He murmured soundlessly toward vacant spots on the wall. He drank some more wine and studied the hardened vines some more. He counted the vertebrae in Mrs. Rawthrote's backbone. He was happy when one of the waiters, one of the varones from the country, materialized and refilled his glass of wine.

The main course consisted of slices of pink roast beef brought in on huge china platters, with ruffs of stewed onions, carrots and potatoes. It was a simple, hearty American main course. Simple Hearty American main courses, insinuated between exotically contrived prologues and epilogues, were comme il faut currently, in keeping with the informal mode. When the Mexican waiter began hoisting the huge platters over the shoulders of the diners, so that they could take what they wanted, that served as the signal to change conversational partners. Lord Buffing, the stricken English poet, entre nous, turned toward the powdered Madame Cornagglia. Maria turned toward Sherman. She smiled and looked deeply into his eyes. Too deeply! Suppose Judy should look at them right now! He put on a frozen social grin.

"Whew!" said Maria. She rolled her eyes in the direction of Lord Buffing. Sherman didn't want to talk about Lord Buffing

He wanted to talk about the visit from the two detectives. But start off slowly, in case Judy is looking.

"Ah, that's right!" he said. A great social grin. "I forgot. You don't care for Brits."

"Oh, it's not that," said Maria. "He seems like a nice man. I could hardly understand what he was saying. You never heard such an accent."

Social grin: "What did he talk about?"

"The purpose of life. I'm not kidding."

Social grin: "Did he happen to mention what it is?"

"As a matter of fact, he did. Reproduction."

Social grin: "Reproduction?"

"Yes. He said id'd taken him seventy years to realize that's the sole purpose of life: reproduction. Said, 'Nature is concerned with but one thing: reproduction for the sake of reproduction.' "

Social grin: "That's very interesting, coming from him. You know he's homosexual, don't you?"

"Aw, come on. Who told you that?"

"This one." He gestured toward the back of Mrs. Rawthrote. "Who is she, anyhow? Do you know her?"

"Yeah. Sally Rawthrote. She's a real-estate broker."

Social grin: "A real-estate broker!" Dear God. Who on earth would invite a real-estate broker to dinner!

As if reading his mind, Maria said, "You're behind the times, Sherman. Real-estate brokers are very chic now. She goes everywhere with that old red-faced tub over there, Lord Gutt." She nodded toward the other table.

"The fat man with the British accent?"

"Yes."

"Who is he?"

"Some banker or other.'

Social grin: "I've got something to tell you, Maria, but--l don't want you to get excited. My wife is at the next table and she's facing us. So please be cool."

"Well, well, well. Why, Mr. McCoy, honey."

Keeping the social grin clamped on his mug the whole time, Sherman gave her a quick account of his confrontation with tbe two policemen.

Just as he feared, Maria's composure broke. She shook her head and scowled. "Well, why didn't you let 'em see the goddamned car, Sherman! You said it's clean!"

Social grin: "Hey! Calm down! My wife may be looking. I wasn't worried about the car. I just didn't want them to talk the attendant. It may be the same one who was there that night when I brought the car back."

"Jesus Christ, Sherman. You talk to me about being cool, and you're so uncool. You sure you didn't tell 'em anything?"

Social grin: "Yes, I'm sure."

"For Christ's sake, get that stupid smile off your face. You're allowed to have a serious conversation with a girl at the dinner table, even if your wife is looking. I don't know why you agreed to talk to the goddamned police in the first place."

"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

"I told you you weren't cut out for this."

Clamping the social grin back on, Sherman glanced at Judy. She was busy grinning toward the Indian face of Baron Hochswald. He turned back to Maria, still grinning.

"Oh, for God's sake," said Maria.

He fumed off the grin. "When can I talk to you? When can I see you?"

"Call me tomorrow night."

"Okay. Tomorrow night. Let me ask you something. Have you heard anybody talking about the story in The City Light? Anybody here, tonight?"

Maria started laughing. Sherman was glad. If Judy was watching, it would appear they were having an amusing conversation. "Are you serious?" said Maria. "The only thing these people read in The City Light is her column." She motioned toward a large woman across the table, a woman of a certain age with an outrageous mop of blond hair and false eyelashes so long and thick she could barely lift her upper lids.

Social grin "Who's that?"

"That's 'The Shadow.'"

Sherman's heart kicked up. "You're joking! They invite a newspaper columnist to dinner?"

"Sure. Don't worry. She isn't interested in you. And she isn't interested in automobile accidents in the Bronx, either. If I shot Arthur, she'd be interested in that. And I'd be glad to oblige her."

Maria launched into a denunciation of her husband. He was consumed with jealousies and resentments. He was making her life hell. He kept calling her a whore. Her face was becoming more and more contorted. Sherman was alarmed--Judy might be looking! He wanted to put his social grin back on, but how could he, in the face of this lamentation? "I mean, he goes around the apartment calling me a whore. 'You whore! You whore!'--right in front of the servants! How do you think that feels? If he calls me that one more time, I'm gonna hit him over the head with something, I swear to God!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Sherman could see Judy's face turned toward the two of them. Oh Christ!--and him without grin on! Quickly he retrieved it and clamped it on his face and said to Maria, "That's terrible! It sounds like he's senile."

Maria stared at his pleasant social visage for a moment, then shook her head. "Go to hell, Sherman. You're as bad as he is."

Startled, Sherman kept the grin on and let the sound of the hive engulf him. Such ecstasy on all sides! Such radiant eyes and fireproof grins! So many boiling teeth! Hack hack hack hack hack hack hack, Inez Bavardage's laugh rose in social triumph. Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw, the Golden Hillbilly's barnyard bray rose in response. Sherman gulped down an other glass of wine.
 
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Excerpted from Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1987 by Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Bantam paperback edition published December 1988.