Big Wolfe on Campus

The first thing that must be said about Tom Wolfe—and there are many good and grave souls who won’t say it—is that he is some kind of genius. The second thing is that he is profoundly irritating. Let us pause, for a moment, on the second.

Wolfe is both a deliberate and an accidental irritant. The 73-year-old New Journalist turned novelist has provoked so much ire among America’s intelligentsia in part because he’s gone out looking for it. This is the man who told a British paper that he does not feel alive unless he’s fighting somebody—and fight he does. What’s more, he does not fight the guys next door; he fights the guys in his own backyard, the guys he shares the deck chair with, the guys who review his books and write their own. And he doesn’t always fight pretty. You can admire his 1989 literary manifesto skewering the vogue for autobiographical fiction and calling for a sweeping new “social novel” that encompasses the “lurid carnival” of American society. You can relish his irreverent tirades against modern architecture, and thrill to his puncturing of the pieties of modern art. It’s a lot harder to love his gratuitous broadsides against Norman Mailer for being “an old pile of bones.”

But then again, literary heavyweights used to exchange low blows all the time: Even the pious author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, gamely called other seventeenth-century poets “driveling miscreants,” when they questioned his capacity to deflower a virgin. Perhaps we have all become too polite in modern letters.

What might be more abrasive than Wolfe’s combativeness is his prose style. Much on display in his new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s kinetic way with language flies in the face of every bit of wisdom ever recorded in a style manual. Where Strunk and White might say “no needless repetition” and “no goofy punctuation,” Wolfe gives us this, to start off one of his chapters: “STATIC::::::::::: STATIC::::::::::: STATIC:::::::::::: STATIC::::::::: STATIC:::::::::::STATIC.” And where the professors of prose tell us “When you wish to be heard, whisper,” Wolfe yells. “Dupont [University]!” exclaims one of his protagonists. “Science—Nobel winners! whole stacks of them! … Athletes—giants! national basketball champions! top five in football and lacrosse! … Scholars—Legendary! … Traditions—the greatest!” Granted, Wolfe is mimicking the ruminations of a drunken frat boy in this passage, but his own narrative voice is not all that different: “Tiny Mummies!” screams the title of a notorious essay on The New Yorker: “The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”

But let us suspend our disbelief for a moment and consider that all this is just … Tom Wolfe. Great men have great idiosyncrasies, and the stubbornness with which Wolfe reproduces his exclamatory voice after it has been mimicked so many times makes it appear less a fault than a flourish. What remains is one of the most necessary authors working in our time—an intrepid explorer of America’s hustling social milieus, a Lewis and Clark of the American soul.

Most authors write about one person again and again: themselves. This can be riveting—as in the work, say, of Philip Roth or Elfriede Jelinek—as well as soporific, as in so many personal essays and mid-list memoirs. And yet it is a particularly rare achievement when an author can imaginatively empathize with as vast an array of contrary personalities as we encounter in Wolfe’s work. Wolfe may live in a fancy block-long apartment on the Upper East Side, but he clearly does not stay indoors. He walks his white suit into the dark corners of American social, sexual, and criminal life and returns with an intuitive, empirical, and arresting grasp of his fellow citizens. One reviewer, faced with Wolfe’s gritty portraits of prison inmates in A Man in Full, wondered if his research had involved a ten-year incarceration.

Charlotte Simmons is a further extension of Wolfe’s range. Both in his early nonfiction and later fiction, Wolfe has “done” men: seven strapping astronauts in The Right Stuff, the testosterone-driven investment banker Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, the ex–football star Charlie Croker in A Man in Full. He has done narcissistic mayors, overachieving lawyers, and power-hungry demagogues. This time, he puts himself into the head of an 18-year-old coed, a sheltered Christian girl from the North Carolina mountains whose mother taught her to say “I am Charlotte Simmons, and I don’t hold with that” if anyone ever asks her to do something she does not want. When Charlotte arrives on the sex-crazed, alcohol-drenched, athlete-worshipping campus of Dupont, her worldview suffers some earthquakes. The result is a set of sharply observed, poignant, and often hilarious skits in which—surprisingly, given the setup—Wolfe never once stereotypes, oversimplifies, or beatifies his rural heroine. Instead, he allows her all the complexity, extreme self-consciousness, acuity, manipulativeness, and vanity he has accorded the richest of his protagonists.

Arriving at her first fraternity party, “she tried smiling smugly and confidently at blank spots on the wall, as if she had just seen someone she knew only too well,” Wolfe tells us. Finally, she spies a line of people. Some are conversing, “but others were talking to no one… . Well—no matter how haplessly, she would be … with somebody. So she got in line too. Soon enough it became apparent that this was the line to the bathroom. Pathetic … but an identifiable role, however temporary, however lowly.”

Once Charlotte moves up in the world, she cares less about being happy than about being observed to be happy: “Charlotte laughed again and pushed off [her date’s] shoulders with her fingertips as if he were ribbing her in the most hilarious way imaginable… . She wanted to make sure Crissy and Nicole saw what a wonderful time she was having.”

Wolfe portrays vanity, one-upmanship, and affectation with surgical precision. He is the great bard of self-consciousness. He does not, however, disdain the characters whose self-congratulations and petty envies he exposes; his eye is piercing but gentle. Charlotte may use her date, but it is not for this reason that we feel better about the way he proceeds to use her. The scene in which she loses her virginity is among the most detailed and harrowing seduction scenes ever described by a man from a woman’s point of view. If Wolfe’s book consisted only of this scene, it would disprove one of the more fashionable, and fallacious, literary consensuses of our day: that men cannot write for women, nor women for men. “We’re seeing the end of universality,” novelist Michael Cunningham said to general applause at a recent literary fest. “A book that speaks to a 65-year-old white guy may actually have nothing to say to a 23-year-old Jamaican woman.” It may not—but it can. Real literature proves as much—and Tom Wolfe is real literature.

Not that I Am Charlotte Simmons is beyond reproach. For one thing, Wolfe packs far too much into it. It is part of his Zola-esque hubris; he not only introduces a supersize cast of characters, but also gives us family histories for each. We know about the school nerd’s grandmother, the frat boy’s dad, the girl the basketball coach is bedding, and the one he’d like to bed. Every novel Wolfe has written opens with a crowd scene; in Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s a mass riot; in A Man in Full, it’s a street festival; in I Am Charlotte Simmons, it’s a sprawling university party. Wolfe is too enamored of the broad canvas. He is too enamored of size. Bigger, for him, is always better; more is more important.

But Wolfe not only gives us too much of a good thing; sometimes he gives us the wrong thing. His argument about campus sexuality, for example, is off the mark. First invoked in “Hooking Up,” a 2000 essay based on his investigations of American undergraduate life, Wolfe introduces it again—at once more obliquely and more garishly—in the preface to Charlotte Simmons. He recounts a lab experiment in which cats have their sex drives surgically augmented. The ominous thing is that when these cats are put into the presence of cats whose libidos have had no such medical assistance, they all go crazy. Sexual depravity, apparently, is contagious. Place an innocent like Charlotte in the company of perverts, and she turns into one. Putting aside the clunkiness of this Aesop’s fable–cum–preface, it misses the point about contemporary college life.

College life suffers less from a surfeit of sex than from a dearth of relationships. Students today are more careerist than ever before. This is why they have no leisure for politics, and this is why they have no leisure for romance. If they’re lucky, they can catch a newspaper once in a while—or a hand job in the bathroom. Many are dogged by super-kid upbringings; accustomed to large numbers of scheduled lessons, academic decathlons, organized sports, extracurricular self-improvement, and pre-career career-building, they keep up the good work in college. Love is just too time-consuming. So what remains is sex. But the abiding, anarchic interest in sex may actually be part of the solution to the organized self-absorption that haunts today’s campuses, rather than part of the problem.

Wolfe’s vision of eroticism is ultimately too dark. When, in Charlotte Simmons, an older man has sex with a younger woman, it is, of course, cynical. But when a younger man has sex with a younger woman, it is equally cynical. Indeed, all the sex in Wolfe’s imagined university is rotten. All intimacy is rotten. At the end of the novel, Charlotte falls in with a new man. He comes from a very different walk of life than Charlotte does, and to all appearances he adores her. One might reasonably see this turn of events as a triumph—love conquering differences, love opening doors. But Wolfe intends for us to see it as a defeat: The man is not suited for his clever country heroine; she has forgotten, he suggests, that “she is Charlotte Simmons”; she has lost her identity.

Or has she? Could one not imagine that she has simply broadened it? Maybe Wolfe could have—once. But for all his incisive, inclusive observation, for all the student jargon he has mastered, he is nearly the age of his old nemesis, Norman Mailer. And with age comes disbelief; with age comes a kind of pessimism. The capacity for wonder is the elixir of youth. If Wolfe could only seize this elixir, perhaps he would find that love is not forever dead in American academe. It is cramped, to be sure; it is compromised; but it still hovers in wait—perhaps even at the end of his own novel.

  When Tom Wolfe delivered the commencement address to his daughter Alexandra’s graduating class at Duke in 2002, he did not say whether his campus novel would be set there. Having crashed frat parties across the country, Wolfe now insists any resemblance between Duke and Dupont University is unintentional. Duke held that party line on its Website, but English professor Cathy Davidson, Wolfe’s assigned wrangler in 2002, took vigorous issue in the local News & Observer. “It just sounds like an awful book,” she said, “and I’m not that fond of his writing anyway.”  

I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus And Giroux. 688 Pages. $28.95.

Big Wolfe on Campus