- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

By now, just about every pundit has taken his or her potshot at Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” including the Literary Review, a London literary journal, which handed Mr. Wolfe its “bad sex” award for his tales of drunken hookups. The carping hasn’t been confined to literary snobs. Stephen King, no critical pet himself, recently savaged Mr. Wolfe’s novel in Entertainment Weekly, even while defending the scope of his novelistic ambitions.

What about college students — you know, the specimens Mr. Wolfe devoted long stretches in the field to observing at close range in the hopes of compiling the definitive fictional study?

While the students we spoke to graded Mr. Wolfe somewhat more leniently than the critics, they, too, chided the author of “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff” for a much exaggerated picture of campus life.

Mr. Wolfe’s latest follows an improbably sheltered back-country scholar trying to navigate her first year at Dupont, a fictional elite college awash in libidinal and libational excess. The 676-page novel tackles declining academic standards, class and racial differences, the favoritism and deference shown to college athletes, runaway materialism and much else besides, with the unflinching eye we’ve come to expect from Mr. Wolfe.

That eye just isn’t as focused as in the past, some students say.

Wake Forest graduate Lea Ternes, 22, sampled the harsh critical verdicts before cracking the book for herself.

The 2003 graduate, who now lives in Baltimore, says Mr. Wolfe depicts a world with truthful elements cobbled into a misleading package.

“No one in the book is nice, no one,” Miss Ternes says. “They all have ulterior motives … I think college students tend to be a lot more caring than he portrays.”

Miss Ternes doesn’t blame the 74-year-old author for trying to decipher a foreign culture: today’s hedonistic 20-somethings.

“He wasn’t trying to pretend he could identify with these people,” she says. “He was reporting what he saw.”

That doesn’t mean the author’s advanced years didn’t distort some of his observations.

“I bet a lot of the stuff the kids he met did seemed ridiculous [to him],” she says. “On some level, that does come through.”

Perhaps that’s why she says the book hasn’t reached “must read” status for many college students.

The tome’s hefty page count doesn’t help.

“It’s definitely something on the radar screen of college students … but I’d think it would be difficult to find a college student that has time to read a 600-page book for leisure.”

Michael Duffy, a 20-year-old criminal justice student at George Washington University, relishes how Mr. Wolfe becomes part of whatever he writes. The author provides the kind of insider view that illuminates his subjects, as anyone who tore through “Bonfire of the Vanities” can attest.

“He seems to write a definitive book for each generation,” Mr. Duffy says, noting that “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” caught the spirit of carefree drug experimentation in the 1960s and that “Vanities” dissected the excesses of the Ronald Reagan years.

“It was only a matter of time,” he says, before he turned his attention to college campuses.

His timing, alas, is a bit off, Mr. Duffy says.

When Mr. Wolfe researched his previous nonfiction books, he was roughly the age of the people under his microscope, he says.

“Being a 70-year-old man going to frat parties” for research, Mr. Duffy says, “seems kind of awkward. You can sense the awkwardness.”

Mr. Duffy came away from “Charlotte Simmons” thinking Mr. Wolfe merely stated the obvious, albeit in the writer’s typically rich prose.

“College students are having sex, drinking alcohol,” he says. “People already know this stuff.”

Fellow GW student Analiese Bendorf, 20, says the book is a “parents’ laundry list of their worst nightmares.”

“I’m not going to say that these types of things don’t happen, [but] he makes it seem like they’re unavoidable,” says Miss Bendorf.

Her main gripe concerns the lack of what she calls regular kids, the ones who aren’t binge drinking or carving notches on their bedposts.

Isaac Wolf, a student at the University of Chicago, wrote last month in the independent student newspaper the Chicago Maroon that Mr. Wolfe’s broad assault on college mores sinks the novel.

“While Wolfe nails a few scenes, it’s too little to make up for his terrible oversimplification of college life laced with soft-core porn,” he writes.

“The characters,” he bemoans, “are only vehicles to show the emptiness of college life.”

The novel does hit a few accurate notes.

“One example is the shushing of whisperers in the library, whose gossiping after returning from a ‘candy run’ draws the ire of those studying,” he writes.

Margaret Bauer, a 21-year-old psychology student at Washington University in St. Louis contends Mr. Wolfe’s research should be graded as incomplete.

“Some of the little details slip by,” Miss Bauer says, particularly his tin ear for student slang .

Miss Bauer says she identified with Charlotte as a character, though she admits she’s never been as naive as the novel’s heroine.

While acknowledging that Mr. Wolfe has a tendency to stereotype his key figures, she argues that in this case he had a lot of help.

“I think college students make caricatures of themselves,” she says.


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