There was a moment reading Tom Wolfe’s engaging but flawed collegiate epic, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” when I nearly fell out of my bed: the mention of my tiny, all-boys high school in Boston. Wolfe’s description of Roxbury Latin as embodying “an atmosphere of old-fashioned Protestant scrubbed-wood asceticism” was simply startling. For me, at that moment, Wolfe truly got it.
There are several such moments in the book, as there are in almost everything Tom Wolfe writes. The man has an unrivaled perceptiveness — it’s what allows the 74-year-old aristocrat to write about 18-year-old college kids so convincingly. But in “Charlotte Simmons,” much of Wolfe’s “got it” moments are little more than restatements of worn clichés. Rather than revelatory, much of the novel is confirmed and familiar.
Unfortunately for us, Wolfe does not seem to think too highly of today’s college students. To indict the contemporary American university, he explores student life through his main character, Charlotte Simmons, an initially sympathetic greenhorn from the mountains of Sparta, N.C. Through smarts and ambition, she gets a full ride to Dupont University — a combination of Stanford, the University of Michigan, Wake Forest and, most obviously, Duke. When precious Charlotte arrives on campus, she is horrified by the lack of intellectual curiosity, irresponsible drinking and prevalent licentiousness. Along her predictable course of self-discovery, Charlotte is courted by three boys: Jojo Johanssen, the school basketball star; Hoyt Thorpe, the handsome but lecherous frat boy; and Adam Gellin, the nerdy Jewish kid who writes for the school paper.
Part of the pleasure in reading this book as a college student is the sense of reverse voyeurism that accompanies the descent into Wolfe’s reconstructed university world. Just as he is anxious to find out what the modern American campus scene is like, I was anxious to discover what the author, a social chronicler whose best observations have illuminated and expanded readers’ boundaries of understanding, has to think about who we are and how we live our lives.
Some of his observations about college life are painfully redundant (hormones and kegs). But some others are sharp, and it is these that save the book from utter condescension. After Charlotte introduces herself to a girl in her dorm, Wolfe writes: “They were members of the first generation to go through life with no last names.” It is one of many smart but subtle points that pepper the novel.
Though college readers may delight in picking up the most insightful of Wolfe’s observational tidbits, they may also find their collective intelligence repeatedly insulted by his incessant stereotyping. The characters are the weakest part of the novel; they are little more than rough sketches of stock characters we already know (the ambitious college journalist, the self-important faculty member, the lothario frat boy, the dumb jock, etc.) Invariably, Wolfe’s world suffers from the flatness of its inhabitants.
Just as Wolfe does not stretch himself much as a novelist here, his journalistic talents also seem wasted on a project that reveals little more than the obvious. His previous works, both fiction and non-fiction, were much more successful in eloquently encapsulating whole subcultures, trends, decades and even the American Experience. Wolfe misses a vital opportunity in ignoring the nuanced emotional complexities of college students and the college experience.
In spite of the familiarity of the characters and plot of “Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe’s indictment of the university can be captivating, especially because it lacks the imperiousness of typical bromides. I did not think Wolfe wagged the disapproving finger, though many critics did, and it is to his credit that he does not provide moralizing answers to the complex questions his novel raises. In doing so, “I Am Charlotte Simmons” might be the most effective conservative critique of the modern American university since Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.” After all, one need not be a moral puritan to harbor some degree of disapproval at the “hook-up” culture and carefree attitude that many students take towards their academics and life in general. But, on the other side, many might find Wolfe’s passive-aggressive (if not sweeping) condemnation of young adults out of place (if not distasteful) in a work of fiction.
Amidst all his negativity about higher education, Wolfe does miss one of the most significant aspects of the college experience: the vibrant intellectualism. In researching the subject, he spent a great deal of time in college classrooms around the country. Surely he witnessed some isolated incidents of outstanding pedagogy and scholarly exuberance? Yet he does not fictionalize a single instance. (Nor does he celebrate the extent to which love between twenty-year-olds can be the greatest thing on Earth.) Writing about “rocks for jocks” and immature raunchiness is far more shocking than accurately portraying the collegiate thirst for knowledge — and, as Wolfe well knows, it sells better.
Aside from Adam Gellin and his aggressively intellectual cohorts (self-described as the “Millennial Mutants”), the novel’s characters inhibit little besides an unadulterated lust for “rut-rutting” and “loamy, loamy loins.” And the perilous road that Wolfe’s Dupont University takes the title character down is ultimately disappointing, unsurprising and uninspired.
Though it will likely not rise into the pantheon of social commentary that Wolfe’s previous works have — “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “The Right Stuff,” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” to name a few — “I Am Charlotte Simmons” is impossible to put down. Wolfe might be shocked to hear that certain college readers are falling out of bed reading his book: according to him, we spend nearly all of our time there.