Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe is usually associated with the 60s New Journalism movement and his habit of wearing all-white suits, but he is also, apparently, “America’s greatest living novelist.” This is according to the back cover of my paperback copy of Wolfe’s latest novel, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. I picked up Charlotte Simmons over Christmas break, mainly because I’d heard of Wolfe and read some his shorter stuff, but had never bothered reading any of his books; he always seemed like one of those guys I should read, but never really got around to. (And yes, I’m doing a book review of something that came out four years ago, but please indulge me anyway.)

I Am Charlotte Simmons is Wolfe’s purported expose on what college life is really like; although it’s a novel, he apparently did years of research following college kids around at Duke, University of Florida, University of Michigan, and Stanford. The novel’s eponymous heroine is a beautiful small-town girl from Sparta, North Carolina who gets a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious Dupont University (a very thinly veiled Duke). Dupont is the stereotypical big American college, stocked with decadent rich kids, unruly frat boys, and athletes that are treated like campus royalty. Charlotte is, predictably, horrified by all the intricacies and commonplaces of big city, college life-drinking, sex, frat parties, coed bathrooms-and her looks and intelligence attract the attention of several “big men on campus,” including sleazy frat boy Hoyt and basketball star Jojo. She struggles to balance her desire to be popular and fit in with studying and retaining her special “Charlotte Simmons-ness,” with fairly predictable.

The biggest problem with Charlotte Simmons is that while it pretends to be an expose on the bacchanalia of college life, it seems like Wolfe hasn’t paid attention to pop culture since the early 70s. He insists on putting newfangled slang words like “hot” and “cool” (as in, “That’s a cool all-white suit you’re wearing”) in quotation marks, and almost all the attempted pop culture references ring hollow, like they were written by someone who has had popular music described to them but has never actually heard it. This leads to a good deal of unintentional comedy, including a two page description of a brand new drinking game Wolfe has discovered called “Quarters.” The sex scenes are almost unreadably awkward; I was going to quote from it here, but I can’t bring actually bring myself to reread the scene without feeling intensely creeped out by an old man describing two teenagers having sex.

Wolfe is usually acclaimed for his ear for dialogue, which he using extensively here, with plenty of “unnngghh”s and “whaaaazzup”s. I don’t really know if his ear is that good, since I’m not really familiar with the rural North Carolina or Northeastern prep school accents, but even if it’s spot on, the phonetic dialogue trick gets old pretty quick. Wolfe insists on bludgeoning the reader with his ability to depict accents, often writing out full sentences, then re-rendering phonetically: “‘Isn’t that right?’ In’at riot?” Up to a point, using dialogue like this can be interesting and help build character, but the way Wolfe abuses it makes it seem really gimmicky, like he’s beating the reader over the head with the one thing he knows he’s good at.

All these stylistic problems only hide the book’s biggest problem. Even though it’s a page-turner (I plowed through its 800 pages in about two days), a lot of it is really boring. All the characters are flat stereotypes that could’ve been borrowed from any teen movie made in the last twenty years, and Wolfe’s writing has a tendency towards the melodramatic that only exaggerates his character problems. Apparently this has troubled Wolfe consistently, since Hunter Thompson (a much better “literary journalist” than Wolfe, by the way) basically summed up my feelings on Charlotte Simmons in the early 70s: “Wolfe’s problem is that he’s too crusty to participate in his stories. The people he feels comfortable with are dull as stale dogshit, and the people who seem to fascinate him as a writer are so weird that they make him nervous.”

I Am Charlotte Simmons ultimately offers an unfulfilling look at a topic that has been done much better elsewhere (see Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction) and a disappointing effort from someone who obviously aspires to be as good as he’s hyped up to be. The “America’s greatest living novelist” and weird suit wearing shtick would probably be endearing on a better writer, but it just makes Wolfe seems pompous (my cursory internet research also shows that he’s a die-hard Bush supporter, which is inexcusable). Perhaps I should actually read some of his early work for a better idea, but, for now, he’s not even close to being America’s best journalist or novelist. Maybe we should be a little more mistrustful about who They tell us our legends are…

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One Response

  1. And just whom the fuck may you be? Ever written anything, aside from critiques?
    Yes, I know. My grammer is badder.

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