I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe's Animal House
A review by Priya Jain
News of Tom Wolfe's latest novel started circulating long before the release date
was announced; mostly, the reports contained lines like this one from the Tallahassee
Democrat: "During the research phase for the novel in the late '90s, Wolfe
... ended up at 'a lot of frat parties' at the University of Florida." The
image that conjures up -- of the 70ish writer in a high-collared shirt and white
suit hanging against the wall at a late-night college booze fest, scribbling in
his reporter's notebook while 18-year-olds did keg stands -- is not easy to get
rid of once it lodges itself in your brain. (To be fair, Wolfe apparently changed
into a navy blazer for his undercover missions.) And it certainly raised some
doubts about the book in question. How would he ever convince his subjects to
"act natural" in front of him? And what idea of collegians would he
come away with?
To Wolfe's immense journalistic credit, the college experience he renders in
I Am Charlotte Simmons is actually pretty accurate. The book is an amalgamation,
of sorts, of Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, PCU and
Old School, minus the comic pratfalls and with a heavy dose of angst.
We get the "whining diversoids" turning every remark into an instance
of sexism or racism, the thick-necked musclemen who live at the gym, the puking
tailgaters and, most of all, the banal conversation stylings of party kids ("how-drunk-I-was
stories, guy's-such-a-loser stories, can-you-believe-what-a-slut-she-is stories").
The action plays out through the scrim of Wolfe's pet theory that social pressure
trumps free will, and that in college, having sex is the greatest social pressure
The eponymous heroine of this tale is a freshman from Sparta, N.C., a Podunk
town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlotte Simmons, daughter of a devout evangelical
mother and a stoic mountain-man father, star pupil and the pride and joy of
her entire county, wins a scholarship to Dupont University. She is strong and
proud ("I am Charlotte Simmons" is her mantra, reminding her that
she is destined for great things) and filled with dreams of living "the
life of the mind" at Dupont. She's also a teetotaling virgin who has never
so much as seen an issue of Cosmo. It doesn't take long for us to realize that
Charlotte is doomed to fall off her pedestal of purity.
The fictional Dupont itself is more Harvard or Duke than University of Florida.
Situated in a grove in the middle of a slum town in Pennsylvania, it's an Eden
of gardens, gazebos and majestic old buildings and statuary. It's a picturesque
setting of academe, but also one of privilege, and the other girls that Charlotte
first encounters, including her roommate, are rich and snotty, and they look
down on her Southern accent and innocent mountain ways. Poor Charlotte is mortified
by the coed bathrooms in her dorm, the stench of beer, and the foul language
-- what Wolfe calls "Fuck Patois" -- of college-kid chatter. She immediately
recognizes that by sticking to her moral code, she is destining herself to four
years of isolation.
But Charlotte's moral code starts to adapt itself to the pressure to fit in.
Within the arboreal walls of the school lurk three suitors who quickly turn
Charlotte's life into the busy one of melodrama. There is Adam, the nerdy virgin
who writes for the campus paper; Jojo, the tall but dimwitted basketball star;
and Hoyt, the cool fraternity boy whose hobbies are -- what else? -- drinking
and having sex with girls, who he and his buddies charmingly call "cum
dumpsters." Jojo is the first of the guys to fall for Charlotte, and we
first glimpse her through his eyes: "She wasn't beautiful in any way you
usually thought about this place. He couldn't give it a name, but whatever she
had was above all that." Jojo and the other two guys are attracted by Charlotte's
purity, though their most immediate goal is to divest her of it. Charlotte knows
her best choice is Adam, but when she gets envious looks from other girls who
see her with the smarmy but handsome Hoyt, she promptly falls for the most dangerous
of the three.
The boys' inner lives are injected with enough nuance and contradiction to
make them feel true, although like most Wolfe-ian characters, they primarily
serve as types: the Nerd, the Frat Boy, the Jock. Charlotte is a surprising
exception; the first female lead character that Wolfe has ever written, she
is textured and genuine. She's smart and tough but remains mostly unaware of
her biggest flaws, like the fact that, despite her own loser status, she recoils
at the sight of heavier or uglier girls, or the vanity that makes her hem her
skirt ever higher to show off her legs, even as she's protesting against the
sexual advances of her admirers.
Despite her goody-two-shoes veneer and relative innocence, Charlotte thinks
and responds to people, especially men, just like any 18-year-old girl trying
to get a grip on a new reality. The scenes in which she plays out her internal
confusion about sex are the book's smartest and most realistic -- and therefore
funniest -- moments. The first night that Adam kisses her, she clumsily tries
to avoid intimacy with this guy she's not attracted to, but who she wants to
keep as a friend: "Charlotte was too embarrassed -- embarrassed? -- but
that was the way she felt! -- to look at his face again. So she pulled her head
downward from his lips and rested it on his chest, to spare his feelings. Big
mistake. This merely spurred him on to more passionate moaning."
The themes that Wolfe worked over in his first two novels, The
Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A
Man in Full (1998), are here as well, although he doesn't tackle them as
directly or on such a grand scale. But race, class and the manly struggle for
dominance assert themselves in the male characters' intertwining side dramas.
The basketball court becomes the stage for racial tension as Jojo, one of the
team's only white players, tries to assert his alpha-male status against the
team's flashier and more beloved black stars. Hoyt knocks out the bodyguard
of the governor of California, who is on campus for a commencement speech --
and, at the moment, receiving a blow job from a coed -- and uses the story to
leverage increased status within his fraternity. And scrawny Adam rages against
the moneyed and muscle-toned power of his rivals, Jojo, whom he tutors (read:
writes papers for) and Hoyt, whose scandal story is the key to Adam's muckraking
What makes I Am Charlotte Simmons less grand than Wolfe's previous novels
is the setting itself. Bonfire swept together all of New York, and A
Man in Full took on Atlanta's boomtown politics from the white, affluent
north side to the poor black south side. In Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe
never strays from a few campus buildings, except to take us there in the first
place from Charlotte's Sparta and then back home with her for Christmas break,
when we see just how far from hillbilly country she has really come in a few
short months. One trip to Washington, D.C., with Hoyt barely strays from the
hotel room -- where, yes, Charlotte's virginal nightmare comes true.
In some ways, the narrowness of the setting -- the focus on a few elements
within a subculture rather than all the cultures of a city -- works well for
Wolfe; race and class issues boil underneath the main plot, popping to the surface
once in a while to hint that, beyond the sexual angst, the characters are embroiled
in a more terrific drama. Charlotte doesn't think much about race, but when
she comes back to the dorm crying one night to find a gaggle of girls sitting
in the hallway, she ignores all of their nosy questions except the black girl's,
because "she had it in her mind, from social osmosis, that it was proto-racist
to slough off what black students had to say." Where the characters of
Bonfire and A Man in Full are stretched too thin, coming across
as people who only think about race and class and status and power, Charlotte
and her classmates, confined to a smaller stage, are enriched by these momentary
glimpses of larger struggles.
But the problem with this particular narrow setting is that it is too familiar.
Anyone who has been an undergrad in, say, the last 30 years has lived through
all of this, and there's not much new to learn. It's hardly surprising that
student athletes aren't quite as smart as their scholarly peers, or that frat
parties are moldering caves of heavy drinking and sex, sex, sex. Any onetime
freshman who foolishly believed that college would be primarily a place of academic
growth will also recognize Charlotte's anxiety as her dream of "the life
of the mind" slips away. It's hard to imagine whom Wolfe intended this
676-page study for, if not those who have done some time on campus, and that
makes his effort all the more puzzling. One imagines Jane Goodall turning her
research over to her chimps; what would they do except roll their eyes and say,
"Yeah -- and?"
The only real novelty in I Am Charlotte Simmons is that it was written
by someone as removed from the college scene as Tom Wolfe. In the details of
the scenery, we're glad to have his stranger's eyes, rendering sharp observations
about things we've seen perhaps too often to really notice. (In describing Hoyt's
fraternity house, Wolfe writes that "the tables, magnificent old pieces
that had been here ever since this huge Palladian mansion was built before the
First World War, were by now riddled with dents," and the bookshelves "now
held dead beer cans and empty pizza delivery boxes funky with the odor of cheese."
Who can read that and not feel the loss of original purpose, how far the very
idea of the university has sunk?) But Wolfe's big revelations -- that college
is really all about sex, and that prudery rarely survives social pressure --
are anything but.
There's a painful scene when Charlotte arrives in Washington with Hoyt for
his fraternity formal. They are with two of his frat brothers and their sorority
girlfriends, who have been nothing but rude to Charlotte on the drive. Charlotte
steps into the lobby of the Hyatt, the first real hotel she has ever stayed
in, and is overcome by the soaring interior space. She runs outside to the car
to tell the other girls about it, thrilled with her discovery: "There's
this ... space, this empty space, and it goes all the way up to the roof, but
it's all inside the building!" She exclaims, "Y'all oughta come see
it!" One of the girls, annoyed, deadpans, "You mean an atrium?"
At the risk of sounding like a bitchy sorority girl, reading I Am Charlotte
Simmons ultimately feels like this -- for all its charms, it's about as
enlightening as staring at a hotel atrium.