Every few years or so, Tom Wolfe creates a massive tome documenting sections of American society. In 1988, he detailed New York City during the Wall Street boom in Bonfire of the Vanities. In 2001 he turned his satiric eye on to the capitol of the South, Atlanta, GA, in A Man in Full. In 2004 he has deconstructed another part of American culture, that of the university.
I Am Charlotte Simmons is set at the fictional Dupont University. It is a setting of higher learning as prestigious in its intelligentsia as Harvard or Princeton, with an athletic department as fearsome as the University of Texas, or Stanford. Like New York and Atlanta it is full of a great many sub-cultures with their own social statuses. Wolfe again skewers them with a journalists eye for details.
Within Dupont University there are several classes of society. There are the fraternities and sororities filled with alcoholic, sex obsessed frat boys and their counterpart sorority girls, who are perfectly dressed, coiffed, manicured and accessorized. There are “student athletes” who are set apart from all other students on campus with private dorms, dumbed down classes (taught by professors who understand the needs for the “program”) and, of course, plenty of lavish gifts bestowed upon them. Then, there are the students daring to come to the university to actually get an education. These students are at the lower end of the social totem pole. Nerds and geeks who want to use the university for its intended purpose. But these poor lads are not the complete social outcasts. For this Wolfe gives characters with no other purpose than to be losers. There are groups of girls who line the dormitory hallways blocking the paths of others only to grasp a little of their coolness and gossip about anyone with something resembling a life.
Charlotte Simmons enters Dupont from the mountains of North Carolina. She is a beautiful, intelligent prodigy from the sticks. She comes to this bastion of social milieu, naïve, morally pure, and with Southern good cheer. The near 700 pages within this novel details her freshman year trying to find her place in all of this.
Wolfe again writes from the perspective of different characters. When chronicling one character, the reader understands their thoughts and perspectives. Here, he gives us insight into several characters. There is JoJo Johanssen, star basketball player being outplayed by a incoming freshman. Next there is Hoyt Thrope, the coolest of cook frat boys, who is rich, suave and completely one dimensional. We also understand the perspective of Adam, a poor, intellectual and radical member of the school newspaper. Of course, much of the novel is written from Charlotte Simmon’s perspective. An interesting turn of perspectives occurs when two or more of these characters interact with each other. Suddenly we see one of the characters from another point of view.
The novel does a great job giving details to the nuances of the fictional university. Wolfe is the reporter chronicling American college life. Yet, he is also the constant satirist drilling into the ultimate contradiction of a university doing everything but educate. There are several beautiful passages detailing the state of the once grand and beautiful fraternity houses. The large, ornate tables have long since been stained and chipped by countless beer games. The antique, gorgeous library now houses pizza boxes, beer cans and a lone television, without a book to be found.
At its heart, this is a coming of age story. Charlotte Simmons must become an adult woman. Wolfe lets us know that she is an intellect prodigy. He writes her with the ability to become an intellectual giant. She is also a pure, naïve country girl. When the novel begins, she is a virginal, teetoling young lady who is shocked, SHOCKED at the foul language coming from the mouths of her peers. Also from the beginning we know that within the novels pages Charlotte will lose her innocence. Intuitively, we understand that Wolfe must crush her under the pressure of her peers. We hope she will be able to put herself together, into a stronger self, before the last page.
A large part of the novel focuses on Charlottes desire to find a boyfriend. There are three boys vying for her attentions. Hoyt is the good looking, incredibly popular forerunner. He is suave and incredibly charming and quickly goes after Charlotte’s affections. Adam brings with him a stunning intellect that wows Charlotte, and gives her the intellectual challenges she came to Dupont for in the first place. JoJo is the sweet, kind hearted basketball star who cannot be overlooked.
Who she winds up with at the end of the novel, I found to be a large fault. It is almost as if Wolfe wants to surprise the reader with the least acceptable candidate. Throughout the novel, Charlotte belittles and is annoyed with this character. In order to end the novel, we are found with Charlotte throwing away so much of what she had worked form. Some of this had been destroyed with bad decisions, but we do not see where it is destroyed so much that she will accept where she is by the novel’s end.
It is discouraging, and yet believable that Charlotte is so enveloped with the need to be popular. Certainly the need to fit in, to find kinship with our fellow people, is a universal need. Yet Charlotte concentrates so deeply on this need, it is disappointing to see. She notes that in high school she was able to be above the worldly throng, yet almost immediately she is going against her own beliefs merely to fit in.
Out of place in this novel is the lack of God. Charlotte is from the rural mountains of North Carolina, practically the buckle in the Bible belt. Her morals abound from Christian ideology. She mentions that her mother is from the Church of Christ Evangelical denomination. Yet, rarely is there mention of God or faith. The first mentioning of the divine comes from Charlotte fearing the wrath of her momma’s God. The way the passage reads we understand she fears the wrath of her momma over the wrath of that God. Later, when Charlotte has all but been destroyed, she prays to God over and over again to take her away from this earthly plain. Yet, by novel’s end Charlotte ruminates over her disbelief in an eternal soul. It is not difficult to believe that even a rural North Carolina intellectual could pull away from her mother’s belief in God. But, to have the character seem unscarred by this belief (or unbelief), seem more from the writers New York intellectualism, than one based in the character.
Tom Wolfe has again created a masterful work of satire. His journalistic eye gathers enormous details about the structure of American collegiate life. He seems to be trying to shock his audience where there is none left. There have been far too many MTV Spring Break specials to find any shock in college students drinking and indulging in casual sex. However, he gives a bravado performance detailing their escapades. In the same manner, he fails at bringing perfect insight into the nature of someone like the titular character. He glances over any religious turmoil that would certainly be central to her character. Even with these flaws, I Am Charlotte Simmons is a beautiful read. There is much that is spot-on correct in the current university scene, and there is much to enjoy while reading.