I am Charlotte Simmons , by Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 676 pages, $28.95.
Michiko Kakutani carpet-bombed this novel nearly two weeks before it reached your neighborhood bookstore: “flat-footed,” “tiresomely generic,”"dated,” “stale,” “lackadaisical,” “merely gross,” “cheap, jerry-built,” “messy and predictable,” “disappointingly empty.” The barrage was relentless and cruelly timed, calculated to cause maximum damage, to reduce the book to rubble before anyone else even had a chance to look at it.
A sturdy, 676-page tome, I am Charlotte Simmons survived the bombardment more or less intact. I can picture the author, clad in his habitual combat gear, brushing the dust from the double-breasted jacket of his crisp white suit and coolly continuing his climb to the pinnacle of best-sellerdom. As for Ms. Kakutani, whatever enraged her also blinded her to the big-as-a-barn fact that Tom Wolfe has served up another of his broadly entertaining novels-exactly the sort of disposable distraction we happen to need just now.
He takes us on an uncensored campus tour of Dupont University, from the co-ed bathrooms in the co-ed dorms (“ancient Gothic buildings erected en masse in the 1920s”) to the championship basketball team’s sumptuous locker room (polished oak, louvered doors) to the Palladian pigsty that houses the frattiest frat. In the funhouse mirror of a fictitious elite university-clearly Duke in disguise-Mr. Wolfe shows us what he likes to call the “irresistibly lurid carnival of American life … the raw, raucous, lust-soaked rout.”
Lust-soaked just about sums it up-his Dupont University is a drunken orgy with time-outs for basketball and the occasional lecture course. The very first character we meet, a handsome cad called Hoyt Thorpe, is transfixed in front of a mirror in a public toilet, “mesmerized by his own good looks,” enjoying an alcohol-enhanced session of self-adoration; a little fresh air is all he needs to achieve “the exquisite point of perfect toxic poise.” Hoyt, cleft chin and all, is a serial seducer, irresistible even to a prudish innocent like Charlotte Simmons, a bright-eyed freshman who’d be our heroine if Mr. Wolfe ever allowed for unmixed sympathies. She succumbs to Hoyt’s charms on page 480-the second of two extended, explicit and effective sex scenes. Mr. Wolfe’s exuberance, his famously revved-up prose, turns the calamitous undergraduate grapple into an eminently watchable spectator sport. (Sex scene No. 1, if you’re planning a bookstore thumb-through, kicks off on page 367.)
While you’re at it, check out the slam-dunk basketball scrimmage in the second chapter. Or, if you’re a football fan, the beer-drenched melee at a pre-game tailgate. Or the crowds at the nightclub nearest to campus, the I.M.: “The mob of students looked like a single drunken beast with a thousand heads and two thousand arms, scratching and itching and itching and scratching at the pustules of a fiery pox, which turned out to be the tips of all the cigarettes.” Want to grab a seat? Here’s how Charlotte’s two friends handle it: “Already Mimi and Bettina were rushing pell-mell to claim the table, jimmying their thighs between back-to-back chairs and sprinkling ‘scuse me’s over the cross faces of the students they jostled.” That’s Tom Wolfe in full, muscling his way through every sentence.
When we sample the academics-Exhibit A is an introduction to neuroscience-the course is a pleasure to audit: It offers Mr. Wolfe the chance to play around with snippets of Darwin and the sinister José Delgado (a pioneer in the “telestimulation” of the brain) and heftier helpings of everybody’s favorite sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson. “After Delgado,” a suave, Nobel Prize–winning professor informs us, “neuroscientists began to put the words self and mind and, of course, soul in quotation marks.” Charlotte Simmons-who clings tenaciously, as the novel’s title suggests, to the notion of a coherent identity-is “transported” by the news that the self might be nothing more than a “useful illusion”; she emerges from the lecture hall “high on ideas”-and the reader hums along, too, dizzily perched atop a heap of compounded ironies.
College is fun! And fun is all I look for in a Tom Wolfe novel-I gave up on deeper meanings after enduring the sermons on the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus in A Man in Full (1998). But Mr. Wolfe bristles at the suggestion that his novels are mere entertainments. He’s persuaded himself that he’s making literature; he’s sure, in fact, that he’s redeeming American literature, rescuing it with his “Zolaesque realism” from its “weak, pale, tabescent” condition.
In an essay he published in Hooking Up (2000)-when he was already at work on I am Charlotte Simmons -he listed the ingredients of a “gripping” naturalistic novel: “(1) scene-by-scene construction, i.e., telling the story by moving from scene to scene rather than by resorting to sheer historical narrative; (2) the liberal use of realistic dialogue, which reveals character in the most immediate way and resonates more profoundly with the reader than any form of description; (3) interior point of view, i.e., putting the reader inside the head of a character and having him view the scene through his eyes; and (4) the notation of status details, the clues that tell people how they rank in the human pecking order, … the entire complex of signals that tell the human beast whether it is succeeding or failing and has or hasn’t warded off that enemy of happiness that is more powerful than death: humiliation.”
Many of the scenes in I am Charlotte Simmons are dazzlingly vivid; the dialogue is snappy and 85 percent credible; the close third-person P.O.V., though it jumps from character to character more frequently than one might wish (and sometimes feels a little off), does add to the sense of immediacy; and status … well, that’s Tom Wolfe’s raison d’être. But just because you’ve stuck doggedly to a recipe doesn’t mean you’ve whipped up a masterpiece.
It helps to have a plot worth summarizing, which Mr. Wolfe hasn’t provided since The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). But weak and scattered plotting is not the fundamental problem. Here’s why this novel is no more than a good read: Mr. Wolfe forgot to fall in love with the bright and beautiful Charlotte Simmons. I’m not saying she has to embody some rare virtue, or even struggle mightily against a fatal flaw. A poor kid from the mountains (Sparta, N.C.), however innocent, who sets her sights on an elite university, scores a full scholarship, then ratchets up her ambition to include a brilliant academic, social and romantic career-a kid like that’s never going to be soft and cuddly. When her illusions are shattered, when humiliation works its worse-than-death wonders, she will be a sodden, tear-streaked bore for at least a chapter or two. And when she re-emerges with a fresh plan of attack, the superhardened new creature will be even less cuddly. But if Mr. Wolfe doesn’t love her through thick and thin, neither will we.
How can you tell it’s not true love? Minute, credibility-wrecking inconsistencies in Charlotte’s character. The worst slip comes when she’s in Washington, D.C., with Hoyt Thorpe for a fraternity “formal”-a few dozen pages from seduction and disgrace. The frat boys and their dates check into the Hyatt Ambassador, where country-bumpkin Charlotte once again displays her sorry lack of sophistication by gawking at the 30-story atrium-she’s never seen one before. (Not even on television? Or in a magazine?) But then, when she’s upstairs checking out the room, Mr. Wolfe permits himself this little riff, supposedly from Charlotte’s P.O.V.:
“The bathroom was a cramped space done in sad pale tones of-what?-stale cheese. The bathtub and the toilet were the color of stale mozzarella. The shower curtain looked like rubbery stale mozzarella. The counter where the basin was ran the width of the wide plate-glass mirror. That counter was a thick piece of plastic with fake bluish veins in it. It was supposed to look like marble. Instead, it looked like Roquefort-and then the cheese conceit began to make her bilious, so she abandoned it.”
Roquefort ? Our naïve Appalachian teenager, the one who’s never laid eyes on an atrium, thinks the bathroom counter resembles Roquefort ? Why not Stilton, Dolcelatte or Edelpilz?
No, he’s not in love with Charlotte Simmons-like Hoyt, he’s merely using her. If Tom Wolfe’s in love, it’s with his own inexhaustible supply of overwrought cleverness.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .