Chapter 7: Catching the Fish
Peter Fallow, a 36-year-old British journalist for the sensationalist tabloid The City Light, wakes up with an excruciating hangover. It’s 1 p.m. and he should be at the newsroom; his alcoholic binges have put his job in serious jeopardy.
Fallow hurries to work and lies to his boss, Sir Gerald Steiner—whom he’s nicknamed “the Dead Mouse”—that he’s been out investigating a story. Steiner doesn’t believe him. He hired the young reporter from England hoping he would become a star, but like a fallow field, Peter Fallow has failed to produce. Now, Steiner has all but given up on him. Fallow drowns his shame by taking a swig of vodka from a hidden flask.
Back in the Bronx courtroom, Kramer vigorously prosecutes Herbert 92X and wins the case. He catches the eye of Shelly Thomas, the sexy girl in the jury with the brown lipstick. She gazes back in admiration, drunk on the excitement of crime fighting in the Bronx.
On Wall Street, Sherman McCoy is called into his boss’s office. The United Fragrance bonds he sold to an investor have taken a dive, losing the client a lot of money. It was a stupid blunder, made because Sherman was too preoccupied to properly check on the bonds before advising the sale. Sherman apologizes, but the damage is done.
Late that evening, at Leicester’s, a fashionable British pub, Fallow joins his fellow Brits for another evening of heavy drinking and trading funny stories about Americans. The Brits, scornful of the native “Yanks,” run up a huge tab and then look for a “fish,” a gullible, rich American who will pay their tab. Their fish tonight is Ed Fiske. He enjoys himself at this pub quite often, admiring the British for their art of conversation. Tonight, the group pretends to admire him as he regales them with stories of Harlem and then, one by one, they slip away, leaving him with the bill. Fallow grins as he leaves the table, then seeks another victim to buy him dinner.
Chapter 8: The Case
As the chapter opens, Kramer is heading for Reverend Bacon’s office in Harlem with the two detectives on the Lamb case, Martin and Goldberg. They’re set to talk to Annie Lamb about what happened to her son. The detectives think it’s all a waste of time—just a hustle set up by Reverend Bacon. Kramer isn’t so sure.
The Reverend Bacon strides in, looking formidable in a tailored suit and starched collar, and launches into the tragic story of Annie and Henry Lamb. He raises the unfortunate mother and son practically to the level of sainthood. The boy is a fine young man, a churchgoer, never in trouble, and bound for college. His hard-working mother has raised him alone for the past six years since his father was shot and killed in a robbery attempt.
Next, Annie Lamb herself enters and tells them her version of the story. Henry came home after being treated at the hospital for a broken wrist, then woke up the next morning evidently suffering from a terrible concussion. Before losing consciousness, he told his mother that he had been walking alone across Bruckner Boulevard when he was struck by a Mercedes with a white man and woman inside. The first letter of the license plate was R, and the second letter was E or F or P or B.
In Kramer’s opinion—shared by the two cops—there is no case. The sole witness they know of, Henry himself, is in a coma and likely to die. There are bound to be hundreds of cars that might fit the description. And even if they find the car, they still have to prove that it was being driven that night, and who was driving it.
Bacon protests that if the victim was white, they’d investigate, but Martin disagrees. Reverend Bacon glowers, warning them that he will be on their case and will make sure something is done.
The three men leave, discussing the case. They doubt the story about the Mercedes; Lamb was probably injured in a fight that he didn’t want his mother to know about. Mrs. Lamb is a good person, the detectives agree—someone who doesn’t really belong in the projects. Kramer listens, surprised to hear that the cops, like the assistant D.A.’s, have not become totally cynical. They, too, need to believe there are good, decent people in the most hellish parts of New York.
Chapter 9: Some Brit Named Fallow
Fallow wakes up, with another punishing hangover, to the sound of the telephone. The caller introduces himself as Al Vogel, an American lawyer and friend of Reverend Bacon, and asks if Fallow can write a breaking news story about a tragedy in the Bronx.
They meet for lunch to discuss the details. According to Al, there are two sides to the Henry Lamb story. One angle is that the hospital should be liable for failing to detect Henry’s head injury. The second angle is the police and the district attorney’s office. They have the make of the car and part of the license plate, and they’re not doing anything to investigate.
Fallow is doubtful there is anything of value in the story, but Vogel assures him that “when Bacon gets hold of something, things happen.” Besides, the lawyer says suggestively, a good story like this will keep Fallow from being fired. Vogel’s obviously done his homework and picked Fallow as a guy who won’t say no. Fallow knows he’s being used, but goes along with it.
Meanwhile, Kramer is called to a police precinct where a gambler/drug dealer named Pimp is being held for homicide. The witnesses to the killing have been chained up like animals to prevent them from fleeing, while Pimp watches TV and eats ribs.
Fallow begins working feverishly on the Lamb story. He talks to a former teacher of Henry Lamb, hoping he will say that Henry was a college-bound honor student, a star of the projects. The teacher, Mr. Rifkind, laughs at the idea. There are no honor students at the rough Bronx school. They’re doing well if they come to school and stay out of trouble, and Henry did that. As for college-bound, Rifkind doesn’t know, but it’s possible Henry could go to the City College of New York. It has an open admissions policy and accepts any New Yorker who applies.
Fallow presses Rifkind. By the standards of the school, then, a kid like Henry who comes to class and does okay at reading and basic math is an honor student, right? Rifkind is forced to agree—and Fallow has his “honor student.”
Analysis of Chapters 7–9
There really are no sympathetic characters in Bonfire of the Vanities; everyone is greedy, selfish, vain, and dishonest. But among all these characters, Peter Fallow is the most despicable. Fallow is a lazy, sponging, snobbish, vain alcoholic with zero journalistic integrity. He’s as empty of ideas as a fallow field until Vogel plants the seed. Fallow allows himself to be used by Vogel and Reverend Bacon because he needs to save his job. He’s more than willing to distort the facts to make Lamb into the tragic victim Vogel wants. Recalling the Chapter 7 title “Catching the Fish,” one might say this makes him the lowest bottom-feeding type of fish in the sea.
Ed Fiske, fresh from being duped by Reverend Bacon, plays the gullible fish (Fiske is Old English for fish) again at Leicester’s, easily hooked by his own snobbery and vanity. He’s flattered when these high-class Brits seem fascinated by his tales—they really understand the art of conversation! Shelly Thomas (a shellfish?) is the other fish in Chapter 7. She’s hooked on the romance of crime fighting in the Bronx, and Kramer’s ready to reel her in.
More details are emerging about the boy who was hit by Sherman’s car, but it’s hard to know what to believe. The teacher says he was a nice kid, although certainly no honor student as Bacon advertised. His mother genuinely seems like a good person, and the story about how her husband died is true. But something’s “fishy” here. The boy lied when he said he was hit on Bruckner Boulevard, innocently crossing the street. It wasn’t on the boulevard, but on the ramp. And he wasn’t alone, either—there was a bigger young man with him that night. But Bacon and Vogel aren’t interested in finding out the truth; they just want to create the perfect victim so they can sue the hospital and the driver and get millions in civil court. Wolfe keeps the reader hooked and waiting to find out more.