Sunday, January 16, 2005

DB Reviews: I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

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.

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.


The Sore Loser said...

Nice review. I think I'd we willing to have a go at I Am Charlotte Simmons if it wasn't so damn long. The only other Wolfe book I've read is "Bonfire of Vanities". I may have been a bit too young for it at the time, but my impressions were that it was a good read but not deserving of the effusive praise it received. I may have mentioned earlier that I saw Wolfe discussing his new book on a number of shows and I wasn't impressed with his salesmanship. He struck me as too out of touch to write a book about college.

So is "Ball Out" replacing "Necessary Ends"? (I may be getting the title wrong), or do you now have two books in the final stages?

Eric Berlin said...

I saw Wolfe speak live and give a reading in Pasadena (which I discuss a little bit in my "interview" post) and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. However, I had the uneasy feeling that the dude wasn't going to be quite up to snuff on the modern college scene. His genteel, gentleman's journalist approach works better in A Man in Full when satirizing things like the popularity of hip hop music in prison. It just doesn't fly as well with I Am Charlotte Simmons. That being said, my review stands: the guy still tells a mean story.

Ball Out is replacing Possible Ends as the title of my debut novel, thanks for asking. I was excited to learn late last night, during a round of late-night procrastination, that there is very little fiction out there that features the sport of rugby (at least as a keyword). So, we'll see...

Eric Berlin said...

One thing I forgot to mention: an error that proves Wolfe is out-of-touch with young guys. One Monday night during October, the story tells us, the frat boys of St. Rays are sitting around watching Sports Center, as they always do... wrong! Monday Night Football, sorry, wrong answer. I'm surprised no one else picked up on this -- not that I've seen at least.

Anonymous said...

You people saying Wolfe is out of touch with the college scene are absolutely lucdicrous. I'm a junior in college right now, and have turned every page of his book in a state of increased shock and interest at how IN TOUCH he is. This book should be used as an unofficial 'welcome-to-college' crash course manual.