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
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
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
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.
For more on I Am Charlotte Simmons, check out my "exclusive interview" with Tom Wolfe.
DB Note: This was an especially interesting read as I am currently in the finishing stages of a collegiate-focused novel of my own. New (and hopefully final) title: Ball Out.