Wolfe’s ‘Charlotte Simmons’ portrays seedy college life

Dupont University, a dollop of academia in a rough-around-the-edges town, has libraries that hum with activity long after midnight, a much-worshipped basketball team and a ring of crummy bars that transform from dives to social hives upon the weekends' arrival.

By that description, Dupont may sound familiar, but the similarities to a certain other university end there. Dupont is completely fictitious and exists only as the backdrop for the misadventures of the titular heroine of Tom Wolfe's new book, "I am Charlotte Simmons."

Charlotte Simmons is a brainy backwoods transplant from Sparta, N.C. lauded for her genius by her elders but scorned for her prudishness by her peers, when she arrives at the gates of Dupont expecting an intellectual utopia for young people as learned and eager as she. But Wolfe's maxim for this novel seems to be "the more idealistic they come, the harder they fall," and it is not long before Charlotte's express trip up the straight-and-narrow is waylaid by alcohol, lecherous frat boys and (gasp!) oversleeping.

To cover the entire plot of the 676-page novel would be like trying to untangle the story lines of the foamiest of soap operas, but to say that Wolfe chooses the well-trod road of portraying college as four years of sex and hangovers wouldn't be a bad start. Mostly, "Charlotte" is about the loosely interconnecting lives of a diverse ring of college students centered around the innocent protagonist. The characters include Charlotte's roommate, Beverly, the embodiment of East Coast privilege and snobbery; Hoyt Thorpe, a self-entitled frat boy who sets his mind on making Charlotte his conquest; Adam Gellin, a sincere-but-geeky senior who pines for Charlotte; and Jojo Johanssen, a basketball player who reconsiders his academic coasting after meeting Charlotte.

Wolfe focuses on each of the characters for the length of at least one chapter, so each character, except Charlotte, drops off for sizable portions of the novel. This means that when, for example, Beverly makes her reappearance, the reader is forced to stop and think about what injustice she has most recently done to Charlotte.

By tossing in a kegger, tailgate party or orgy-like fraternity formal at regular intervals, Wolfe keeps "Charlotte" plenty trashy and, therefore, very readable. But beer and bedroom hijinks provide only the same cheap, low-voltage thrill that one can get by reading a grocery-store checkout paperback. The action in this novel doesn't truly compensate for the weird diatribes on everything from sports to the validity of a number of scientists and philosophers that Wolfe also includes, usually in the guise of Charlotte listening to a teacher lecture.

Wolfe, who has carved out a niche in the journalism world with popular, critically acclaimed novels such as "The Right Stuff" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities," is often described as a keen observer. True to his reputation, the majority of Wolfe's observations of college students are dead-on. The characters often have the same kind of non-conversations you're likely to hear walking through Raynor Library, for example, and speak pretty much in modern vernacular. By their description, their outfits sound plausible, and they instant-message, jabber on cell phones and exploit the web just as any real student would do. Sometimes, though, Wolfe's observatory powers are misapplied. Does he really need to devote a few sentences to explaining what Stairmasters and Everything Bagels are? Wolfe is definitely writing for an older audience, and his need to explain what can be seen as the most mundane things sometimes feels like he's talking down to his reader.

Grade: AB

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Jan. 27 2005.