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.
Mr. Wolfe, also well known for the lengthy research he pours into each work, said recently during an interview that because of the age gap between himself and today’s college student, he wished to come across as a reporting scientist from outer space. While at times this approach works, it falls flat just as often. Certain words and phrases (“jacked,” or having lots of muscles from lifting weights, and “you’re money, baby” from Swingers) come across as overused and slightly-off terminology picked up from interviewing youngsters. The interactions of characters also ring a little false from time-to-time, such as when Charlotte’s ultra-rural parents meet Beverly Amory (the freshman roommate) and her ultra-rich parents. The Amorys act like they’ve entered a toxic dump when convinced to eat at a Denny’s-like eatery that will jibe with the Simmons’ modest budget. Charlotte herself is a little hard to believe at times: in an age of television and media outlets galore, she’s literally clueless about modernity, pop culture, dating rites, etc.
Dupont University also feels a bit off as well: how many Ivy League schools send their basketball squad to the Final Four year-after-year? The result of these contradictions is that you get the feeling that Wolfe is trying to push too much into one story: sex, drugs, sports, date rape, social alienation, alcoholism, and on and on, into one teeming tome. Pressing, as the sports world would term it.
All of that being said, Wolfe still has the ability to do what all good writers do: he makes you want to find out what happens next. Charlotte’s journey from country girl valedictorian to seasoned collegiate vet is bumpy, problematic, but ultimately worthwhile.
For more on I Am Charlotte Simmons, check out my “exclusive interview” with Tom Wolfe.
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