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Tom Wolf’s Charlotte Simmons

I am Charlotte Simmons

by Tom Wolfe

Reviewed by Jim Kunstler

     Some years ago, ubermaster journalist Tom Wolfe published an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, in which he upbraided American novel-writers for their narcissistic navel-gazing and miniaturism and challenged them to grapple with the fascinating spectacle of the contemporary scene on the grand scale in all its sordid juiciness and complexity. At the time, Wolfe had produced only non-fiction books, but he was about as highly regarded as any American writer working in any genre, a true undisputed heavyweight champ of the literature game in Norman Mailer’s parlance. 

      As a journalist, Wolfe’s breadth of subject matter was impressive — ranging from the origins of stock car racing to the physics of space travel, with, in between, a keen interest in cosmopolitan social relations and manners and even the anthropology of the hippies. He was especially a brave apostate to the reigning dogmas of Modernism in the arts, and wrote two slender, pithy books (The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House) which vivisected the absurd pretensions of 20th century art and architecture with brilliance and authority.
     Long about the late 1980s, after he had made a tidy fortune off his book about the astronauts, The Right Stuff, Wolfe finally set out to demonstrate how to write novels on the grand scale. Despite his strong feelings on the subject, and considerable intellectual preparation, Wolfe was nervous enough to enter into an agreement with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine to serialize the novel — the idea being that Wolfe would be forced to grind out chapters on deadline every month, like Charles Dickens before him. Wolfe pulled off the stunt, not without strain, but when Bonfire of the Vanities was published as a book by Farrar Straus in 1987, it was considerably re-plotted and spiffed up.
     The novel was about the misfortunes of a young Wall Street millionaire named Sherman McCoy, who got in trouble with the law over a hit-and-run incident involving a teenage black pedestrian, in the company of his mistress, which multiplied his troubles. The novel’s considerable strengths came in its hilarious courtroom setpieces and sketches of the bizarre denizens of the New York City justice system — the perps, prosecutors, cops, judges, witnesses, and hangers-on. As usual, Wolfe studded the piece with deadly accurate observations of the social truths that other writers less self-assured dared not make, including the buffooneries of the African American sub-culture.
     It was mostly fun, but it did not escape me at the time that the story had a striking flaw: Wolfe’s protagonist, Sherman McCoy, the Park Avenue “Master of the Universe,” was not an especially sympathetic character. In fact, he was pretty much a jackass, and in the end Wolfe more or less trashed him, leaving him gasping in the gutter, so to speak — and we were given to understand that these were Sherman McCoy’s just desserts.
     Now there is a problem with this as a technical matter of novel-writing: trashing the protagonist is a breech of contract between the writer and the reader, who is being asked to invest his emotions in identifying with the vicissitudes of the lead character, and feels cheated to discover at the end of the long journey that the lead character was not worthy of the investment. In other words, why should I have cared about this jackass Sherman McCoy?
      This is not to say that happy endings are mandatory in the art of the novel (especially if one admits a tragic view of life), but to watch the novelist himself, the creator, the God who made this creature, his hero, reduce that character to a state of bathos, and then dispose of him like a week’s trash, sends a message to the reader that the creator himself regards his own creation with a disdain that subverts its value. 
      Wolfe gave the same treatment to Charlie Crocker, the Atlanta real estate mogul at the center of his next big panoramic novel, A Man in Full. By the end of the story, Charlie is bankrupt, socially ruined, cast away from his family, and made to look ridiculous for all of it. Again, the novel was full of astute and often uproarious social observation, and even contained a serious core of classical Greek moral philosophy. But the fate of Charlie Crocker, jackass, was not anything we especially cared about.
      Now we have Wolfe’s latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons, a surprisingly thin story in a big fat package about a Carolina mountain girl’s freshman year on scholarship at a big fancy eastern eilte university, here called DuPont but more or less modeled on Duke. Charlotte is the stand-out earnest achiever of her high school class in a backwater of NASCAR provincialism. 
She grows up in a trailer. Her family is intact, loving, upright, but woefully country-lumpen. Her mentor is her chubby spinster high school French teacher. So off Charlotte goes, for the great adventure of an elite education — only to learn that DuPont is a fetid swamp of privileged moral depravity, where the rich preppie coeds act like whores, the frat boys plow through them like Turks in a seraglio and everyone, of all social ranks and both sexes, speaks in a new collegiate “fuck patois” like Vietnam War veterans. “Fuck this fucking fucked up shit.”
      Once again, the novel is full of terrific nuggets of social observation and finely wrought set pieces. Wolfe’s chapters involving the royal treatment of the school’s basketball stars and their special world of adulation, sexual favors, illicit payments (in SUVs), and racial animosities is beautifully drawn. Likewise, his take on the fraternity party scene. He also captures nicely the craven identity politics of the faculty and the doleful miasma of political correctness that oppresses campus intellectual life.
       Charlotte’s disillusion proceeds swiftly and steeply. Her room-mate is a prep-school snob and a virtual nymphomaniac. Dorm life is a horror, including co-ed bathrooms that subject innocents like Charlotte to the gross “egestive” pranks of adolescent males. The social scene is a dark whir of heavy drinking and compulsive, anonymous sex devoid of social ceremony, and the emphasis on big-time sports adds a final overlay of corruption and idiocy to whatever remains in the realm of higher learning. Whip-smart but socially insecure, Charlotte soon trades away her academic ambitions for the attention of a fraternity bigshot, one Hoyt Thorpe, a larval Wall Street chiseler of the type previously dissected in Bonfire of the Vanities. At the same time she is pursued by the only caucasian starter on the DuPont basketball team, “Go-Go” Jojo Johannson, as well as a Jewish intellectual striver nerd named Adam Gellin, who is somewhat more of a plot device than a person. By the end of her first semester, she has been deflowered and dropped by the frat boy in a particularly sordid way, fallen into a morbid depression, and come close to flunking out. That is where the main body of the story more or less ends. In a final chapter, which is more properly an epilogue, we find Charlotte a few months later in the spring semester falsely redeemed. She has become the official girfriend of semi-dunce basketball star Jojo Johannson and sits at midcourt in the giant arena in a privileged seat for all the rich, preppy snobs to notice and envy. She has become somebody.
       Whatever else Wolfe might be, he is a consummate professional writer, and he tells this story, for what it is, with admirable panache. Though he is well over seventy years old now, he has done a good job of studying the bizarre sociology of the current college scene — it probably helped that he had two children in college during the composition of the book. No doubt he hung out on campus here and there, in the old journalistic spirit, and picked up an awful lot of sheer material, which he made good use of in constructing the fictional world of DuPont. It is all quite believable, including the extremes of behavior which seem to have become the norm.
      The problem, though, is exactly the same problem we ecountered in Wolfe’s previous two novels: he has created a lead character who is hard to care about. Charlotte Simmons s
tarts out as a prig, becomes a mess, and ends up a sell-out. To be fair, Wolfe strives to get inside the character’s head and portray her complexities, and he pretty much gets in there, without managing the final crucial step of finding her sympathetic. We understand the psychological machinery behind Charlotte’s insecurities, her embarrassing family, her lack of spending money, her hick’s wardrobe. We understand the youthful purity of Charlotte’s academic ambitions. We can relate to the varied predicaments she finds herself in. But after all, we’re left with a kind of comic clinician’s view of things, an unappeasable cynicism in the strict sense of the word, which is not just thinking the worst of everyone, but of failing to locate any of those things in the human condition that make the fictional re-creation of it worth representing. Though I rather imagine he tried as hard as he could, I don’t think that Tom Wolfe ever cared for Sherman McCoy or Charlie Crocker or Charlotte Simmons. So why should we?

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

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