Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe

Everyone needs a break now and then, and after reading through 47 of my top 105 books, with only a few short diversions, I decided to read a novel that wasn't on my list...something that I thought would be fun and interesting and a bit lighter than Tolstoy or James Joyce. So after having let this book sit on my shelf unread for the seven years since it was published, I finally read Tom Wolfe's latest novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons".

Tom Wolfe (no relation to Thomas Wolfe) was one of the influential "new journalists" of the 1960s, probably best known for his book about Ken Kesey and his followers, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". At the age of 56 he wrote his first novel "Bonfire of the Vanities", which I read when it came out in 1987. This book was a social satire about New York City in the 1980s, and I remember finding it fun and insightful and a real page turner. His second novel "A Man in Full" (1998) takes place in Atlanta, and tackles the real estate boom of the 1990s, race relations, and Atlanta society. I read this book too, and again thoroughly enjoyed it, although I didn't think it was as good as his first novel. "I Am Charlotte Simmons" came out in 2004, and as I said, it's sat on my shelf unread since then. It didn't get great reviews, which is why I held off, but I needed a break from the canon and so I finally picked it up.

I have to say this book was very much a mixed bag. On one hand, like Wolfe's other novels it was a fairly quick read, even at 670 pages...a real page turner, in fact. It's always enjoyable to read a book like that...a fun read that pulls you along. That said, this is not a great work of literature. In fact, the book has some pretty major faults. Wolfe is known for extensively researching his subject matter before writing his novels...that's his journalism training coming through. But I think he really misses the mark in this one. The story is about Charlotte Simmons, a country girl from a small town in the remote hills of western North Carolina. She's innocent (really innocent) but smart as a whip, and totally excels academically. She gets a scholarship to go to Dupont University, which in Wolfe's fictional world is on par with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. At college, she's a fish out of water, and doesn't readily fit into the three main social groups: the jocks, the frat/sorority crowd, and the left-wing intellectual geeks. She also doesn't drink to excess (or at all, actually), stay out all night every night, and have casual "hookups" with guys. This is where the first of the major faults of this novel lies: the university Wolfe depicts is nothing like Harvard/Yale/Stanford/etc. (I did my graduate work at Yale, so I have some experience here). At Dupont, athletics rule everything, and the athletes all take the easiest courses possible, live in their own special dorms, and are treated like heroes and superstars at all times. This is not simply the way it is at places like Harvard and Yale...maybe at Ohio State, or some university with a huge athletic program, but the top academic schools don't have this. And the amount of sex and booze and debauchery at Dupont University is too over the top to be believed. I mean, students have always partied in college since the 1300's, at pretty much every college, but Wolfe depicts a place where many students stay out every night, and stay drunk in frat houses at all times, and again this just wouldn't happen at one of the very top colleges in the country. These students would have terrible grades, and the majority of students who have gotten into Harvard or Yale or Dupont are going to be pretty motivated academically. This depiction of college as a four-year bacchanal just doesn't cut it.


The post (above) was written about a month ago. It is unfinished, and I was going to write more about this book, but time and circumstances intervened, and I never got around to it. Alas. And now when I look back, I just don't have the motivation or quantities of booze necessary to get me to continue writing about this book. So it is what it is...the great unfinished post of this blog so far. But I can sum up: this wasn't that spectacular of a book.