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I am Charlotte Simmons
By Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 676 pages, US$28.95/C$48.95
ISBN: 0-3742-8158-0

The best little whorehouse in Pennsylvania

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 15, 2004

I am Charlotte SimmonsAt fictional Dupont University in Pennsylvania, students engage in excess that would make Bacchus proud. Oceans of alcohol, music so loud you can feel it inside of you and a level of sexual liberty that doomed Sodom and Gomorrah are every day facets of campus life. Men with pumped up bodies, all seeking to be the alpha male on campus, relentlessly hunt attractive women who view their partner as a declaration of their status. Academic performance falls low on the list of priorities, if indeed it's a priority at all.

It is into this world that Charlotte Simmons, the central character of Tom Wolfe's latest novel I am Charlotte Simmons, steps into. Charlotte is a simple -- not to mention very attractive -- country girl from a town so small its primary industries seem to be unemployment and chewing tobacco. The academic star of her high school, Charlotte wins a scholarship to the Ivy League level university and dreams of a "life of the mind", a place where her fellow students are dedicated only to expanding their minds with the knowledge of the ages.

Charlotte is such a simple girl that she is cataclysmically shocked by the world she enters. In her wildest dreams she never could have expected that young adults turned loose into the world would explore sex, drinking, late nights and loud music. Despite having access to a television set at home, she is stunned to learn of a world where boys and girls do more than hold hands -- and even that's a big step in Charlotte's mind -- and drink milk shakes on weekend nights. Charlotte's challenge then is to survive the hell she has been thrust into with an innocent smile and her personal motto I am Charlotte Simmons!

For a journalist who challenged novelists to write about the world around them, I am Charlotte Simmons is an exercise in maintaining credulity as Wolfe romps through campus life. A number of plots thread their way through the novel: the potential scandal of a politician with presidential aspirations enjoying an encounter with a student, an academic scandal involving a member of the school's national championship winning basketball team and the primary one featuring Charlotte and her battle to maintain her hometown morals but at the same time seeking the approval of men on her campus. Ultimately none of them are either plausible or successful. It's hard to believe, for example, that the students of any university that is included in the same sentence as Harvard and Yale could be so dismissive of academics.

Solid characters can sometimes overcome a weak story but the cast of I am Charlotte Simmons does nothing to save the novel. Filled with stereotypes straight out of central casting, none of Wolfe's characters has any depth. Charlotte moves from being impossibly naive to extraordinarily tiresome when she suffers nothing less than a mental breakdown after having sex for the first time, destroying any sympathy the reader might have had for her. The three men who vie for her attention, the callous frat boy, the dork and the college basketball star, play their assigned roles to stock perfection. Every woman on campus, with the exception of a few, is a sorority girl in training, armed with daddy's money, a cell phone and a lust for campus athletes and fraternity members. Athletes and nerds hate each other, frat boys hate everyone and no other groups apparently exist on campus.

On some levels I am Charlotte Simmons does work quite well. Wolfe's investigation of the treasured place athletics programs have in university life -- and the royal lives of its members -- should be a revelation to anyone who still believes in the noble ideal of the student-athlete. His send-up of campus radicals -- both students and their aging counterparts in the faculty -- is humorous and painfully true. One could even argue that he has made it clear that university has lost much of its purity and that it, and society as a whole, has become overly sexualized and stupid.

It's clear that Wolfe is registering his disapproval with today's university students, their supposed exclusively bacchanalian existence and society as a whole. Unfortunately I am Charlotte Simmons is too overboard and manipulative to be taken seriously as an argument against the decline in morality and academia. His characters are unsympathetic, unrealistic and exist only for Wolfe to use to hammer his points in. Given Wolfe's incredible skill with language and journalism, I am Charlotte Simmons could have been on the same level as The Bonfire of the Vanities, exploring how forces out of our control affect our lives, but instead it is little more than a prime time treatment of the subject.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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