How does this conservative look forward to a new Tom Wolfe novel? Let me count the ways.
The political incorrectness. Well, not exactly that. Tom Wolfe takes no point of view, has no bill of goods to sell. He just calmly, coolly records the way things are, the way people look and talk, the commonplace, mostly harmless, prejudices and solidarities that have survived 30 years of relentless media and educational indoctrination against them. Among the characters in I Am Charlotte Simmons are basketball players named Treyshawn, Dashorn, Cantrell, Vernon, and André. Would you care to hazard a guess as to what color they are? A Jewish student, trying to get out of trouble with a Jewish professor, makes sure “to let it be known that his family was Jewish, by packing his great-grandparents, pogroms in Eastern Europe, fear of being forcibly dragooned into military service in Poland, Ellis Island, the Lower East Side, and sweatshops into a single sentence, without losing track of the syntax….” For goodness’ sake, Tom, don’t you know you’re not supposed to notice this stuff?
The class angle. Modern U.S. society is addled with class snobbery. Poor and rural Americans are coarse-looking, ill-dressed, speak in dialect, and have lousy dietary habits. Rich suburban and high-urban Americans would much rather have nothing to do with them. When confrontations do occur, the rustics are insecure but defensive, the rich patronizing but impatient, with a frisson of guilt. Again, these are things known to everyone, but we are not supposed to notice them. Wolfe does notice them, and draws them to a “t.”
The cold eye. I don’t know how the future will rank Tom Wolfe as a novelist, but he is a simply terrific journalist. Oh, sure, he exaggerates some when writing fiction to get the effects he wants; but you could put a Wolfe novel under a steel-mill press and not squeeze a single drop of sentimentality out of it. Wolfe’s authorial tone to the reader is: You don’t have to like this, and I’m not too crazy about it myself, but this is the way it is, and we both know it. Our society is awash with the grossest kind of sentimentality–in movies and TV, saturating the sappy nostrums of the Sunday magazine-supplements and corporate mission statements, pouring in from self-help cranks, victim-industry moaners and weepers, love-the-world useful-idiot politicians and Oprah-fied pain-feelers. Wolfe is the antidote to all this sugary glop. There isn’t enough of him to have much effect, unfortunately; but when you’re drowning in treacle, the merest squirt of lemon juice is refreshing. Wolfe worships the god Kipling worshipped, The God of Things As They Are.
Gray’s Anatomy. This fine old classic must never be far from Wolfe’s working area. He is exquisitely precise about the naming of body parts. Who can forget the young attorney’s sternocleidomastoid muscles in Bonfire of the Vanities? In this new book there is an iliac crest or two, but the main concentration of anatomical attention is on the absurdly pumped-up–jacked! ripped!–upper bodies of the athletes and frat boys. Lats, traps, delts, abdominals–here we are in all the sweaty narcissism of modern gym culture.
Typographical vitality. A copy editor once sent back a manuscript of mine with all the italics, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, and exclamation marks stripped out. She was, I learned later, a disciple of some dogmatic imbecile–was it Strunk?–who had pronounced that the barest text was the best text. Well, the hell with her, and him. Our Tom shares my opinion that every key on the keyboard is there to be used, including the shift key. In I Am Charlotte Simmons he has even ventured a typographic innovation (I think–it is new to me, at any rate): using strings of colons for ellipses in interrupted or disconnected thought. Like this:
::::::trying not to look at him::::::the condom, the ball-peen hammer::::::the undertow again::::::the Doubts::::::more time::::::can’t think spinning like this!::::::Look, Hoyt::::::just wait a second, okay?::::::
Neat plotting. Wolfe isn’t one of the great plotters–not a Wodehouse, not even a Trollope–but he understands the principles of moral balance and equity that make a novel satisfying to the reader. Virtue need not triumph, but ought at least survive; evil need not be routed, but ought at least be chastened; and there must be a sufficient number of secondary characters we are sufficiently interested in that the author’s giving us some hint of their subsequent fate at the book’s end adds minor satisfactions to the major ones.
Dramatic variations of depth. Here a 500-word description of a seedy disco, all the details colored in: there a discussion of sociobiology. Here a blow-by-blow account of a college basketball game: there a rumination on neuroscience. Wolfe manages not to be show-offy with the intellectual stuff he puts into the novel. It’s pretty basic anyway, and mainly there just to moor his characters’ pleasures and sorrows to big old eternal truths. No harm in that, if deftly done.
…And so on. You can see that I am a big Wolfe fan. I therefore came to I Am Charlotte Simmons with high expectations, and was not disappointed. There are some nits to be picked, if I get round to it; but all in all this is a splendid novel.
The heroine, Charlotte Simmons, is a very bright and hard-working girl from a poor family in back-country North Carolina. She wins a place at elite Dupont University in Philadelphia. The story covers her first semester and a little of the second.
No more than averagely strong of character, Charlotte was academically dogged in her hometown, but quickly loses her moral bearings under the pressures of elite campus culture. Lonely and hungry for peer acceptance, she circles a little too close to the flame of frat-house glamour, the particular flame here being Hoyt Thorpe, handsome but empty-souled son of a Wall Street con man. Meanwhile two seniors have fallen for Charlotte: dim bulb Jojo Johanssen, one of the basketball team’s two white players, and Adam Gellin, a nerdy Jew-Without-Money who serves as Jojo’s “tutor”–which is to say, does Jojo’s academic assignments for him.
The dance of these four–Charlotte, Hoyt, Jojo, and Adam–constitutes the book’s main action. Everything is set in the casual, peer-pressure-driven depravity of elite campus culture, which of course is described in infinite detail.
If you are delicate about language, or about sexual promiscuity, you will find Wolfe’s account of student life at Dupont University shocking. If you cleave to the old-fashioned idea that the principal function of a university is the promotion of higher learning and the life of the mind, you will be disillusioned. It never hurts to have a Nobel Prize winner on the faculty, but the real aristocrats at Dupont are the star athletes and frat-house swells. They, and everyone else, converse in what Wolfe calls “f*** patois”–every second word a profanity or obscenity.
The coarseness of their language reflects the coarseness of their lives–coed bathrooms, affectless recreational coupling, and heroic drinking. Over all hangs the terrible dispiriting blight of cool. Notes Adam:
The cool guy doesn’t flatter anybody or act obsequious or even impressed by somebody–unless it’s some athlete … and you don’t act enthusiastic unless it’s about sports, sex, or getting high. It’s okay to be enthusiastic about something like Dickens…or Foucault–or Derrida for that matter–but if you want to be cool, you don’t show it, you don’t say it, you don’t even let on. A cool guy–and I’ve seen this happen–can secretly work his ass off five–no, four–nights a week at the library, but he has to make light of it if anybody catches on. You know what the favorite major of the coll guy is? Econ. Econ is fireproof, if you know what I mean. It’s practical. You can’t possibly be taking it because you really love economics.”
Under this cruel, oppressive cult of coolness, all point and purpose drains out of life, and a dull, solipsistic hedonism takes over. Wolfe paints a very depressing picture.
He further hints that things can only get worse. For all their coarseness and detachment, the 20-year-olds at Dupont did not weave their decadence and nihilism out of thin air. Cool is the pop, vulgarized manifestation of grown-up metaphysics, whose source is in the new sciences of evolutionary psychology, neurophysiology, and genetics. The soul is of no importance or interest to these kids because their elders believe it does not exist–one of Charlotte’s lecturers tells her this in so many words. And their arguments are not mere intellection, but increasingly draw strength from hard science. Wolfe does a fine job of turning all this into actual human events, culminating in a heartbreaking phone conversation between Charlotte and her mother, a fundamentalist Christian.
One thing I very particularly wanted to know, as father of a bright, pretty, almost-12-year-old girl, is: How true is Wolfe’s portrait of elite-campus life? Are modern college campuses really such riots of drunkenness and affectless sexual “hooking up”? Is potty-mouth slang really this universal? Is class snobbery really this rampant? I had trouble believing things were quite as bad as Wolfe paints them. But then, I was working with bond traders when Bonfire of the Vanities came out, and he got that scene pretty much right.
Worried, I consulted a young friend who up to a couple of years ago actually was an undergraduate on an elite campus–one of those where Tom Wolfe did his research for this novel, in fact. A fraternity member and college-level lacrosse player, my friend was also academically brilliant. His answer to my query was long and complicated, but the main thrust of it was: Not quite that bad. Samples from his response:
The smarter your daughter is, the less likely she is to be popular–and hence to have sex early. … Less than 30 percent of good college-bound girls have sex before senior prom. As you move from the high Ivies down through the low Ivies, down through public schools to Community Colleges, this fraction rises to 100 percent…. The probability of a hookup getting all the way to full-on intercourse the first time is a function of the status disparity between male & female. For maximum likelihood the male would be a fraternity member, a senior, and an athlete. The female would be a starry-eyed freshman during fall semester…. The rule of thumb among my frat brothers was: dump her if you haven’t had sex by the 3rd date. Exceptions: very hot girls, Christian girls, and Asian girls…. A lot of people at the most academically intense campuses just don’t have time for dating, so the 3rd-date rule is not often applied outside the frat/sorority scene–non-Greeks really don’t have as much time for structured dating. In this case the hookup is the only sexual outlet. … Leftism, or at least apolitical attitudes, are required to get action. You can be as left-wing as you want & it won’t hurt you, but don’t be openly rightist about anything or you’re set for years of social & sexual ostracism.
Oh, dear. I suppose it’s no use grumbling about all this, but I can’t help wishing things were otherwise. What a mess our culture has gotten itself into! Here is Tom Wolfe to give you a guided tour. With some due allowance for novelist’s license, he has done a brilliant job.