I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS by Tom Wolfe (HarperCollins), 676 pages, $36.95 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Tom Wolfe spent years on college campuses preparing for I Am Charlotte Simmons, but you'd never know it. The novel, like Wolfe's others, is supposed to be a satire, in this case of all things collegiate - the prick frat boys, the coddled athletes, the sex-starved coeds. Dupont is the fictional Ivy League school into which he plunges hillbilly heroine Charlotte Simmons, a gifted student completely unprepared for campus life.
The problem is that the collegiate culture that's the subject of Wolfe's outrage doesn't exist. To be sure, the scams being run by athletic departments in America's universities are worthy of Wolfe's contempt. Yes, athletes cheat to meet their academic requirements; yes, they're showered with cars and gifts and groupies. Class and race conflicts are real.
But he depicts Dupont's basketball team as the national champions, a ludicrous proposition for any elite university. What that means is that one of the essential tensions in the book - that between students interested in the life of the mind and students interested in making it in the NBA - is fake.
Wolfe's always been good at nailing male hubris, and he does it again here with his three male characters. Frat boy Hoyt sees Charlotte as a conquest, basketball star Jojo sees her as a saviour, school newspaper intellectual Adam sees her as a goddess. They're all full of shit, and Wolfe knows it.
But the female characters, including Charlotte - who appears never to have read a magazine or looked at a TV show in her life - are laughable. The novel's soundtrack is made up of the incessant shrieking laughter of Dupont's empty-headed female students getting it on with the guys at all-night bashes.
Problem is, Ivy League women almost never attend fraternity keg parties. Fraternities import women from junior colleges by the busload - something that would have been worthy of Wolfe's vitriol.
Anyway, who can believe anything about a novel that has the big man on campus use as his favourite pickup line, "Did anybody tell you you look like Britney Spears?"