Tom Wolfe is well-regarded as the author of books that wonderfully represent particular eras. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a journalist’s report from the front lines of hippiedom and came to help define the 60s in all of its experimentation, counter-cultural angst, and excess. The Bonfire of the Vanities is an exquisitely sharp portrayal of capitalism and racial relations in 1980s New York.
Now, Wolfe, at the ripe age of 73, takes on the social patchwork of collegiate life in I Am Charlotte Simmons. So, the Big Picture question is: has Mr. Wolfe done it again in penning a tome that will help to define and symbolize our current age? The short answer is, sadly, no. However, Wolfe retains the ability to tell a powerful, rich, and involving story.
I Am Charlotte Simmons actually centers around four characters: Hoyt Thorpe, a preppy, elitist, coke-snorting frat boy; Jojo Johanssen, a white member of a mostly black big-money basketball program; Adam Gellin, a dorky, virginal intellect and member of a club called The Millennial Mutants; and the super-naive, super-smart (and super-virginal) Miss Simmons herself.
All are students at the fictional Dupont University, an elite Northeastern school with the sports program to match. Charlotte, who grew up in tiny, rural Sparta, North Carolina, is awed and frightened by the crass and vulgar world of modern collegiate life, and we view much of the doings and activities of the modern undergraduate (co-ed dorms, getting drunk, puking, hooking up, getting kicked out of bed so roommate can hook up, cutting class, fitting in, and so on) through her astonished eyes. The four main character’s lives eventually intermingle, but it is Charlotte who we are most concerned with: can she maintain her sense of self in this crazed and status-obsessed world? Or will she abandon her cherished “life of the mind” to become one with the sex-starved, beer-starved, and nihilism-starved in order to be liked, fit in, and perhaps even loved?
As pure fictional story, I Am Charlotte Simmons is an engaging read. Wolfe has a wonderful way with words and phrasing and rhythm – rhythm! – that will certainly keep most readers turning the pages. But as a reflection of reality, the novel has many short-comings.