BY DAYNA NORRIS
Tom Wolfe © 2004 Mark Seliger
“Someone would inevitably ask ‘What college did you go to?’ and he would say as evenly and as tonelessly as possible, ‘Dupont.’ Everyone . . . who had ever graduated from Dupont knew that feeling, treasured that feeling, sought one way or another to enjoy that feeling daily if at all possible, now and for the rest of his life.”
This passage on page 8 of Tom Wolfe’s latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons, confirms to a Wolfe fan that he has again perfectly captured an ambience, this time elite college life. Wolfe first used a wild style to drop in on the crazy ’60s with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Then, in The Right Stuff, he wrote with a hard edge to contrast the courage of Chuck Yeager and the other flyboys who broke the sound barrier with the hype surrounding America’s first astronauts. Though, in fairness, both groups had casualties, as Wolfe famously expressed it, “burned beyond all recognition.” Manhattan arrogance saturated every page of Bonfire of the Vanities, and then bloated writing matched the world of the Southern nouveau-riche in A Man in Full. Wolfe, at 70, now opens the least likely door and allows anyone of any age to experience frosh year at a top-drawer school in I Am Charlotte Simmons. How does he do it? The cadence, the language, the characters’ interior thoughts—all are exactly perfect.
With a perennial final-four basketball team, gothic architecture, private gardens, and 6,000 undergraduates, Dupont University certainly resembles Duke, though Wolfe sent Duke a letter of denial. Charlotte, valedictorian of Sparta, NC, high school and the first of her family to even go to college, quickly realizes her clothes (“Do you always sleep in pajamas?”), shoes (only three pairs), simple hair, lack of make-up, and especially her accent (they-em for them, allriot for all right, cayn’t for can’t) are wrong, very, very wrong. Shocked by coed bathrooms, incessant rap music, unrestrained drinking, language perpetually foul and/or sarcastic (Sarc levels 1, 2, 3), and expressions like getting “sexiled by a roommate for the night,” Charlotte doesn’t want to leave her room.
If you’re as shocked and squeamish as Charlotte (Wolfe’s got ya), either don’t read the book, or this review by a Duke ’72 grad, for that matter, or allow yourself to be baptized by Wolfe into the mental, physical, and emotional intensity of Dupont. For our Charlotte has the inner confidence to tell the school god, JoJo Johanssen, the only white starter on the basketball team, that he was a fool to back off the right answer in class just because he was ridiculed as a “scholar” by his black teammates. The class, French literature in English, was nicknamed Frero Jocko, as were parallel pseudo-classes in economics called Stocks for Jocks and geology Rocks for Jock. Charlotte quickly drops the fake class, and JoJo is quickly infatuated with a Dupont gal who not only doesn’t melt in his presence, but dares to challenge him.
Her innocent beauty is also an allure simultaneously for fraternity golden boy Hoyt Thorpe—“And his square jaw. . . that chin with the perfect cleft in it…his thick, thatchy light brown hair…those brilliant hazel eyes…his! Right there in the mirror—him!”—and scholarship student and campus journalist Adam Gellin —“Was he obviously dorky?…Cut back on all that curly hair and shape it and get rid of that part. What are those dark blue wool pants with the pleats and cuffs… wool?…no guys wore wool pants. And those brown moccasins with soles like rock ledges—what was this unerring eye for just the wrong thing?” Even her roommate, the Groton snob, alcoholic Beverly, grilling Charlotte after an away fraternity formal with senior Hoyt Thorpe, moans, “I never thought I’d be living vicariously through you! I mean, you have to tell me everything—I mean everything!”
As Charlotte sorts through the emotional complexities of swimming in the Dupont pond, her devotion to the intellectual life wanes. Shocked at her falling grades and numb from a humiliating experience, gratis Hoyto Thorpe, she barely survives pretending for her admiring family during Christmas vacation at home in Sparta: “How are the teachers? What is the food like? The dorms? Your roommate?” She returns to Dupont depressed, but by the end of the second semester, Charlotte has recovered and to some degree found herself or at least a way to define herself: “I am Charlotte Simmons.” In classic Wolfe fashion, each character plays a role in the plot finale, yet the reader knows it’s not finished. It was only freshman year.