07 April 2016

A page of Wolfe's "Bonfire of the vanities"

The bonfire of the vanities, by Tom Wolfe, appeared in 1987. It is a masterpiece, of which we quote a page from Chapter 9, Some Brit Named Fallow. The context: in the Bronx, a black boy named Henry Lamb, in bad company, has been hit by an expensive car driven by a white couple. "Reverend Bacon", who exploits everything in the black-white field for his own purposes, presses for legal action. Peter Fallow, journalist with the sensation-driven City Light, sees a chance to save his career by endorsing the image of Lamb as an example to the Bronx youth, and decides to inform with the teacher of the victim.   


On his desk was a telephone directory for Nassau County, which was on Long Island. A great hefty thing, it was, this directory. He had never heard of Nassau County, although he now reckoned he must have passed through it during the weekend when he had managed to inspire St. John's superior at the museum, Virgil Gooch III—the Yanks loved to string Roman numerals after their sons' names—to invite him to his ludicrously grand house by the ocean in East Hampton, Long Island. There was no second invitation, but ... ah, well, ah, well . . . As for the town of Hewlett, which was in the county of Nassau, its existence on the face of the earth was news to him, but somewhere in the town of Hewlett a telephone was ringing, and he desperately wanted it to be answered. Finally, after seven rings, it was.

‘‘Hello?’’ Out of breath.

‘‘Mr. Rifkind?’’

‘‘Yes . . .’’ Out of breath and wary.

‘‘This is Peter Fallow of the New York City Light.’’

‘‘Don't want any.’’

‘‘Excuse me? I do hope you'll forgive me for ringing you up on a Saturday afternoon.’’

‘‘You hope wrong. I subscribed to the Times once. Actually got it about once a week.’’

‘‘No, no, no, I'm not—’’

‘‘Either somebody swiped it from the front door before I left the house or it was soaking wet or it was never delivered.’’

‘‘No, I'm a journalist, Mr. Rifkind. I write for The City Light.’’

He finally managed to establish this fact to Mr. Rifkind's satisfaction.

‘‘Well, okay,’’ said Mr. Rifkind, ‘‘go ahead. I was just out in the driveway having a few beers and making a for sale sign to put up in the window of my car. You're not by any chance in the market for a 1981 Thunderbird?’’

‘‘I'm afraid not,’’ said Fallow with a chortle, as if Mr. Rifkind were one of the great Saturday-afternoon wits of his experience. ‘‘Actually, I'm calling to inquire about one of your students, a young Mr. Henry Lamb.’’

‘‘Henry Lamb. Doesn't ring a bell. What's he done?’’

‘‘Oh, he hasn't done anything. He's been seriously injured.’’ He proceeded to lay out the facts of the case, stacking them rather heavily toward the Albert Vogel-Reverend Bacon theory of the incident. ‘‘I was told he was a student in your English class.’’

‘‘Who told you that?’’

‘‘His mother. I had quite a long talk with her. She's a very nice woman and very upset, as you can imagine.’’

‘‘Henry Lamb ... Oh yes, I know who you mean. Well, that's too bad.’’

‘‘What I would like to find out, Mr. Rifkind, is what kind of student Henry Lamb is.’’

‘‘What kindl’’

‘‘Well, would you say he was an outstanding student?’’

‘‘Where are you from, Mr.—I'm sorry, tell me your name again?’’


‘‘Mr. Fallow. I gather you're not from New York.’’

‘‘That's true.’’

‘‘Then there's no reason why you should know anything about Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School in the Bronx. At Ruppert we use comparative terms, but outstanding isn't one of them. The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening.’’ Mr. Rifkind began to chuckle. ‘‘F'r Chrissake, don't say I said that.’’

‘‘Well, how would you describe Henry Lamb?’’

‘‘Cooperative. He's a nice fellow. Never gives me any trouble.’’

‘‘Would you describe him as a good student?’’

‘‘Good doesn't work too well at Ruppert, either. It's more 'Does he attend class or doesn't he?' ‘‘

‘‘Did Henry Lamb attend class?’’

‘‘As I recall, yes. He's usually there. He's very dependable. He's a nice kid, as nice as they come.’’

‘‘Was there any part of the curriculum he was particularly good—or, let me say, adept at, anything he did better than anything else?’’

‘‘Not particularly.’’


‘‘It's difficult to explain, Mr. Fallow. As the saying goes, 'Ex nihilo nihil fit.' There's not a great range of activities in these classes, and so it's hard to compare performances. These boys and girls—sometimes their minds are in the classroom, and sometimes they're not.’’

‘‘What about Henry Lamb?’’

‘‘He's a nice fellow. He's polite, he pays attention, he doesn't give me any trouble. He tries to learn.’’

‘‘Well, he must have some abilities. His mother told me he was considering going to college.’’

‘‘That may well be. She's probably talking about C.C.N.Y. That's the City College of New York.’’

‘‘I believe Mrs. Lamb did mention that.’’

‘‘City College has an open-admissions policy. If you live in New York City and you're a high-school graduate and you want to go to City College, you can go.’’

‘‘Will Henry Lamb graduate, or would he have?’’

‘‘As far as I know. As I say, he has a very good attendance record.’’

‘‘How do you think he would have fared as a college student?’’

A sigh. ‘‘I don't know. I can't imagine what happens with these kids when they enter City College.’’

‘‘Well, Mr. Rifkind, can you tell me anything at all about Henry Lamb's performance or his aptitude, anything at all?’’  

‘‘You have to understand that they give me about sixty-five students in each class when the year starts, because they know it'll be down to forty by mid-year and thirty by the end of the year. Even thirty's too many, but that's what I get. It's not exactly what you'd call a tutorial system. Henry Lamb's a nice young man who applies himself and wants an education. What more can I tell you?’’

‘‘Let me ask you this. How does he do on his written work?’’

Mr. Rifkind let out a whoop. ‘‘Written work? There hasn't been any written work at Ruppert High for fifteen years! Maybe twenty! They take multiple-choice tests. Reading comprehension, that's the big thing. That's all the Board of Education cares about.’’

‘‘How was Henry Lamb's reading comprehension?’’

‘‘I'd have to look it up. Not bad, if I had to guess.’’

‘‘Better than most? Or about average? Or what would you say?’’

‘‘Well ... I know it must be difficult for you to understand, Mr. Fallow, being from England. Am I right? You're British?’’

‘‘Yes, I am.’’

‘‘Naturally—or I guess it's natural—you're used to levels of excellence and so forth. But these kids haven't reached the level where it's worth emphasizing the kind of comparisons you're talking about. We're just trying to get them up to a certain level and then keep them from falling back. You're thinking about 'honor students' and 'higher achievers' and all that, and that's natural enough, as I say. But at Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School, an honor student is somebody who attends class, isn't disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.’’

‘‘Well, let's use that standard. By that standard, is Henry Lamb an honor student?’’

‘‘By that standard, yes.’’

‘‘Thank you very much, Mr. Rifkind.’’

‘‘That's okay. I'm sorry to hear about all this. Seems like a nice boy. We're not supposed to call them boys, but that's what they are, poor sad confused boys with a whole lotta problems. Don't quote me, for Christ's sake, or I'll have a whole lotta problems. Hey, listen. You sure you couldn't use a 1981 Thunderbird?’’

(end of chapter)

And here is how the teacher's words are eventually rendered in The City Light (Chapter 11, The Words on the Floor):
The teacher of Lamb's advanced literature and composition class at Ruppert, Zane J. Rifkind, told The City Light: ‘‘This is a tragic situation. Henry is among that remarkable fraction of students who are able to overcome the many obstacles that life in the South Bronx places in their paths and concentrate on their studies and their potential and their futures. One can only wonder what he might have achieved in college.’’

In Chapter 14, I Don't Know How to Lie, Lamb is described by Fallow as follows:
achieved an outstanding record at Ruppert High School. He was struck down on the threshold of a brilliant future.
Finally, in the Epilogue, the New York Times refers to Lamb as
a 19-year-old black honor student who had been the pride of a South Bronx housing project