The Old College Try
Tom Wolfe’s much-ballyhooed new doorstop, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is as much an academic novel as any other set on an American university, but the white-suited man of American letters has hit upon a satirical and commercial mother lode: Instead of depicting the scholarly realm from the perspective of professors slaving in obscure fields and battling for tenure, Wolfe documents university life from the students’ point of view. By this virtue I Am Charlotte Simmons is funnier and far more amusing than most other academic novels and surely applicable to a wider audience, since more of the reading public have been students than teachers. The irony—alternately hilarious and horrifying—is that academia, at least this side of it, is decidedly nonacademic, more concerned with sports, sex, and alcohol than with classes and ideas.
In the middle of this hedonistic hubbub is Charlotte Simmons, a hard-working, intellectually curious, undeniably beautiful girl from rural North Carolina. On the campus of the fictional Dupont University, somewhere in Pennsylvania, she might as well be from another planet: “You’re not just a freshman,” one character tells her. “It was like like you had just arrived from Mars It’s like you came here with clear eyes, and you see things exactly as they are.” Alternately seduced and repelled by the brash tenor of student life, Charlotte is the lens through which all of college culture can be viewed. Sometimes she is Wolfe’s guide through higher-learning Purgatory, other times an authorial stand-in through whom he can judge the goings-on at Dupont.
As in previous novels, Wolfe constructs Charlotte Simmons in lengthy vignettes, some of which are tours de force of understated comedy (an athlete tries to convince the celebrity coach to let him take a 300-level class) or active description (a scrimmage basketball game reveals depths of racial politics). He depicts several cells of characters—Jocks, Nerds, and Frats—each group defined by a very specific set of values and dramatically different from the others. Representing the Jocks is Jojo Johansson, the only white starter on Dupont’s basketball team and a campus celebrity. His tutor, Adam Gellin, a senior Nerd nervous about his virginity, is a member of the Millennial Mutants, the Dupont intelligentsia who convene for weekly discussions about, among other things, the definition of cool. On the other side of campus are the Frats, specifically the prestigious Saint Ray house, over which reigns handsome, cocky Hoyt Thorpe. Like all of his Greek brothers, he seems to live for drinking heavily, partying hardily, and hooking up with freshman girls.
The only similarity each group shares with the others is the unblinking confidence that only its members truly represent the glories of Dupont life and deserve the respect of the student body. Jojo, Adam, and Hoyt, however, share an additional commonality: They are all in love with Charlotte. The plot develops as these cells of characters mutate and collide and as their main members vie for Charlotte’s exclusive affections.
In her country-bred naivete, Charlotte proves not just a desirable conquest, but a formidable pursuit. While she is certainly as self-possessed as the title claims, she does not move through the novel as an active agent, but instead merely reacts to the madness at Dupont, which leads to some regrettable decisions. But her beauty mystifies the men around her, who see her purity as a blank screen onto which they can project their insecurities and desires. To prove himself adequately intelligent, Jojo ditches athlete-friendly classes like Frere Jocko (French) and Stocks for Jocks (Econ) for higher-level philosophy courses; Adam realizes his smarts aren’t enough and hits the gym to bulk up; and Hoyt plays down his callous machismo to act the sensitive, patient boyfriend.
As it tracks this complicated love quadrangle, Charlotte Simmons derives much of its humor from its literary depiction of decidedly nonliterary goings-on. Waxing poetic on basketball politics, frat parties, tailgate parties, and drunken hook-ups, Wolfe explores college culture with a keen eye and is deeply concerned with existential questions of humanity and free will, even if most of his characters’ interests usually extend no further than beer and sex. The novel balances its more scholarly concerns with loads of bathroom humor, gross-out gags, and an overarching plotline full of romantic conflict, and it reads alternately like source material for some high-brow teen flick or like an update of Terry Southern’s Candy.
Wolfe has a strong anthropological interest in all this young exuberance, as well as a particular love of collegiate jargon like “frostitute” (sexually active freshman), “sexile” (banishment from one’s dorm room so one’s roommate can hook up), “dormcest” (hooking up with a student from your own dorm), and “hoople” (a basketball groupie). But he occasionally gives himself away, as when he comments that the cafeteria “sound system was playing an old number called ‘I’m Too Sexy.’” That almost apologetic qualifier—“an old number called”—exposes the distance between writer and subject matter, a rift that widens whenever he tries to pass judgment on pop culture. His references to a fictional hip-hop artist called Doctor Dis and his description of crunk as “rap forced through bars of melody” are embarrassing, but his attempts at rap lyrics descend into silliness.
At times Charlotte Simmons seems fueled by what may be Wolfe’s disdain for his characters, suggesting that even as he relishes all the collegiate bawdiness, he remains reluctant to dirty his hands or his white suit. But that’s just a pose; it’s obvious in the length of the novel and in the studied minutiae of the environment that he finds these students fascinating. More than a trifle but less than a masterpiece, the novel is an entertainment, and as such it seeks first to amuse and second to inform. Even if it doesn’t get every campus detail down, Charlotte Simmons gets the spirit right.