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Dumpster Bust Reviews: I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

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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.

For more on this and every other topic under the sun, check out:

Dumpster Bust: Manufacturing Miracles from Mind Trash, Since 2003

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  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Thanks for the review – skimmed over it as I am still reading the book, but it fits with his other work – not as good as earlier books, though.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Aaman — thanks. Please check back in here when you finish Simmons and let us know what you thought. ~ Eric B.

  • Bronx J

    My first Tom Wolfe novel. It’s a shame too because I definitely felt it wasn’t worth the time invested, and first impressions are lasting ones. You can check reader reviews all over the web and they basically say the same thing; Wolfe is out of touch and sometimes awkward with the subject matter(who wears braids AND dreads??)- I’m inclined to agree. Some of the story narrative gets repetitive (I thought Luminex bought advertising in the book), and the characters of Charlotte and Adam get so melodramatic towards the end I wanted to reach through the pages to smack the both of them… And Tom Wolfe for making me get violent.

    Not the worst book in the world, even slightly amusing at points, but skip it nonetheless.

  • Eric Olsen

    that is too bad because Bonfire of the Vanities is pretty great

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I would say that Charlotte Simmons is a worthwhile read, albeit with some major caveats. However, Eric’s right: if you’re going to read one Wolfe book, make it Bonfire. I grew up outside of New York in the 1980s, and there’s just no better way to recapture that era than to delve back into its pages.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    This just in: I Am Charlotte Simmons strongly endorsed by…

    President George W. Bush.

    Check it here.

  • Stu Glassman

    Very tedius. Sadly in need of editing. The book is about 300 pages too long. It degenerates to redundant dribble.
    Not worth the effort.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Stu – I thought you were dissing on my post for a quick striking moment!

    I hear what you’re saying but I still hold to my 6-out-of-10 worth-it-if-you’re-a-fan good-but-with-problems review.

  • CHASE

    EVERYBODY WHO POSTED THESE COMMENTS ARE TOO OLD TO RELATE. I AM A COLLEGE STUDENT CURRENTLY AND CAN RELATE TO ALMOST EVERY ASPECT IN THIS BOOK. I THOUGHT IT WAS WELL WRITTEN. TOM WOLFE IS A GENIUS. BONFIRE IS DEF BETTER BUT I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS IS A MUST READ FOR MY GENERATION.

  • Eric Olsen

    interesting that college student Chase says those who are responding negatively to the book must be “too old to relate,” when the author Wolfe is almost 74

  • chase

    Tom Wolfe did a significant amount of research on modern day collegiate life. That does not mean he can relate. He was shocked a little to how college students act in modern day, being that he has two children in college.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    The problem in much of the background material in the fiction is that it comes across more as carefully culled research than integrated, full-blooded storytelling. Wolfe’s constant emphasis on explaining the intricacies of “fuck patois,” for example (which I rather enjoyed, actually).

    Chase — What, specifically, did you relate to so closely?

  • Angie

    I found the book to be an enjoyable read. I recently graduated college and their are parts that Wolfe really gets “right.” I read the conversations of the frat boys and thought it was a spot on match along with other aspects: the bar, the frat party, the dorm etc – and not just their descriptions. I liked the book but didn’t really like any of the characters except Jojo who is the only one who becomes a better person. I thought they all had their own brand of conceit, even pathetic Adam. Charlotte is so consumed with making sure everyone knows she is the one with Hoyt and that they see her superiority in mind and body, she has no clue Hoyt is using her. You almost (mind you, i said almost) don’t feel bad for her when Hoyt takes advantage. Her arrogance began outweighing her naivete. Her treatment of Adam is also completely horrendous.

    All of the characters are extremes. Adams, Jojos, Hoyts, Beverlys, and Charlottes, yes, even Charlottes, do exist on every college campus but aren’t the majority of the population. Wolfe never portays the average more sincere college kid – the one whose experience would be a more accurate portrayal of modern college life.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks for your thoughts, Angie. I agree that Wolfe likes to use archetypes to make the points that he’s trying to get across. A story about a more average student interacting with other more average students would likely have been less interesting.

    That said, the aim at writing a contemporary story about college life comes up a little bit short in the ways I mention in my original post.

  • scott

    it’s based on Duke, which has all the things mentioned including a great basketball team. the critic’s a moron