- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

Tom Wolfe is a prodigious if not prolific writer. Publishing one big novel every decade — “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1987, “A Man in Full” in 1998, and now “I Am Charlotte Simmons” — he is one of the few authors whose new book qualifies as a literary event.

It’s tempting to group his novels into a trilogy, although Mr. Wolfe doesn’t interweave characters or stick to one milieu. Nevertheless, he has decided prejudices and techniques that define his fiction, including his well known advocacy for a return to naturalism, the reportorial style favored by Zola, Thackeray and Dickens.

“I Am CharlotteSimmons,” a high-spirited spoof of college life as we know it in the 21st-century, holds with this tradition, providing the author endless opportunities to send up self-indulgent student-athletes, self-important professors, promiscuous coeds, sodden frat boys and vindictive intellectuals.

America’s shrewdest satirist delights in pillorying the politically correct mentality that has defeated common sense and plain speaking on campus, almost as much as he enjoys ridiculing the collapse of manners and common decency among adolescents and adults alike.

That said, “I Am Charlotte Simmons” suffers from a sameness, Mr. Wolfe recasting characters and scenes from “A Man in Full,” where much action takes place on college campuses in Atlanta, just as he borrowed elements from “Bonfire of the Vanities” for “A Man in Full.”

Those earlier books, however, took readers to places few have gone — corporate boardrooms, overcrowded prison blocks, sprawling Southern plantations — while his latest recreates an all-too familiar environment. “I Am Charlotte Simmons” isn’t out of touch, the obvious criticism that might be aimed at a 73-year-old writer who puts himself in the flip-flops of an 18-year-old heroine, but it isn’t on the cutting edge, either.

In point of fact, our eponymous heroine, a brilliant but nave freshman at prestigious Dupont University, doesn’t wear flip-flops, one of her many fashion faux pas. Straight out of Sparta, a tiny town up in the Appalachian mountains, Charlotte is clueless when it comes to extracurricular activities, especially sex. She can discuss “Madame Bovery” in French and hold forth on evolution with a Nobelist neurobiologist, but she can’t work a cell phone, put on make-up or talk to boys.

“How awkward she was amid this swarm of sophisticates with naked belly buttons and little low-slung leather skirts,” thinks Charlotte, thrown into a panic at her first fraternity party when a square-jawed, cleft-chinned hunk hits on her. The hunk is Hoyt Thorpe, big man on campus, whose reputation has benefited from rumors about him beating up the bodyguard of the governor of California, the Dupont commencement speaker.

Hoyto, the Hoyster, Hoytman (as his frat brothers call him) and his best friend, Vance, accidentally caught the governor, a potential Republican candidate for president, en flagrante with a coed, precipitating the brawl. Enter Adam Gellin, reporter for the school newspaper, who has made it his business to expose the whole mess in an effort to burnish is own reputation.

But Adam, ironically, finds himself under investigation for plagiarizing a term paper for Jojo Johanssen, star of the school’s national championship basketball team. Go go Jojo, the only white starter, risks suspension and, worse, a blown contract with the NBA, while Adam can kiss goodbye a Rhodes scholarship and career as globetrotting “aristo-meritocrat,” the intellectual’s version of fame and fortune.

Mr. Wolfe, with his genius for narrative, contrives to have all three students — the self-absorbed womanizer, the brainy dork and the celebrity athlete — fall for Charlotte, who alternately rues her lack of experience and prizes her virginity. Whether she will hold true to her honest but unhip values, or give in to peer pressure and worldly pleasure, forms the book’s delightfully old-fashioned moral dilemma.

Clever as the narrative is, with its myriad digressions involving Charlotte’s family, classmates and teachers, not to mention an amusing battle between Coach Roth and Professor Quat for control of the university, “I Am Charlotte Simmons” isn’t plot driven. Mr. Wolfe possesses more than his share of dramatic flair, patiently piling up detail and weaving incident into rococo flourishes that build to a well-wrought ending, but a good deal of the book is basically a burlesque of campus life.

We are given a scatological glimpse of the coed bathroom, for example, treated to a drunken donnybrook during a tailgate party, and tour the Farquhar Fitness Center with its sleek Cybex machines and mirror-lined walls:

“The muscular students here at Farquhar were merely subscribing to the new male body fashion,” writes Mr. Wolfe, “the jacked, ripped, buff look. They were all over the place here on the weight-lifting floor! Ordinary guys with such big arms, big shoulders, big necks, big chests, they could wear sleeveless T-shirts and strap-style I’m-Buff shirts to show off in! What were they going to do with all these amazing muscles? … Nothing, that’s what. They weren’t going to be athletes, and they weren’t going to fight anybody. It was a fashion, these muscles, just like anything else you put on your body … cargo shorts, jeans, the preppies’ pink button-down shirts and lime-green shorts, Oakley sunglasses, black rubber L.L. Bean boots with the leather tops …”

As his penchant for white suits suggests, Mr. Wolfe is acutely sensitive to fashion and its meanings, and not just the passing fads of students. More than in his other novels, clothes make, or unmake, the Dupont man. “This morning he had on a short-sleeved shirt that showed too much of his skinny, hairy arms, and denim shorts that showed too much of his gnarly, hairy legs,” writes Mr. Wolfe of Charlotte’s unfortunate French professor. “He looked for all the world like a seven-year-old who at the touch of a wand had become old, tall, bald on top, and hairy everywhere else, an ossified seven-year-old …”

Mr. Wolfe, perhaps, expends too much energy recording the decline of Western civilization as evidenced by the dumbing down of the national dress code. He is also repetitive, perplexingly so, trotting out entire routines for encores before the book is finished. More irritating still, he introduces slang that may or may not be obvious to readers (alumni are referred to as “Cottontops” and “Pineapples”), sometimes explicating the terms on first reference, other times waiting hundreds of pages before doing so. In the same way, a few of his chapters appear to have been shuffled arbitrarily into the narrative, others rearranged without amending the overarching chronology of the book.

Mr. Wolfe’s biting humor and willingness to tip sacred cows more than make up for such annoyances. The author relishes his roles as contrarian and polemicist, and any writer who transforms a groupie-groping power forward into a Socratic scholar, and makes God-fearing country folk role models for Ph.D.s gone wild, can be forgiven his eccentricities. Among Mr. Wolfe’s eccentricities, it seems, is his belief in free will and the existence of the soul — thus the title of the book — a theme expressed by the aforementioned Nobelist neurobiologist, Victor Ransome Starling.

A debonair dresser and old-school lecturer, Starling appears to be the author’s stand-in. “The current fashion among male professors at Dupont was scrupulously improper: cheap-looking shirts, open at the throat, needless to say, and cotton pants with no creases — jeans, khakis, corduroys — to distinguish themselves from the mob, which is to say, the middle class,” writes Mr. Wolfe; “but Victor Ransome Starling always bucked the tide with the sort of outfit he was wearing right now, a brown-and-white houndstooth suit that looked great on his slender frame, a light blue shirt, a black knit tie, and a pair of ginger-brown suede shoes.”

Prof. Starling, “elegance itself,” becomes Charlotte’s momentary mentor, but one teaching remains with her as the novel unfolds: His distinction between the origin of the species, or evolution, and the origin of life itself, which he defines as the impulse to live — an idea that, like his suit, has become unfashionable among his colleagues. “They laugh at the notion of free will,” says Starling, speaking to a auditorium full of students but singling out Charlotte, who he recognizes as special. “They yawn at your belief — my belief — that each of us has a capital-letter I, and in ‘I believe,’ a ‘self,’ inside our head that makes ‘you,’ makes ‘me,’ distinct from every other member of the species Homo sapiens, no matter how many ways we might be like them.”

Herein lies the lesson of “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” tucked away amid the parodies and caricatures. It is, indeed, “elegance itself.”

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

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