I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 676 pp., $28.95
Two unrelated items from The New York Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2004, direct our attention to crises in American higher education. The first, which appears on page A16 of the national section, is grim. Entitled “Drinking Deaths Draw Attention to Old Campus Problem,” it is a report on the deaths of two teenaged undergraduates at American universities. One, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Colorado State University, died of alcohol poisoning “after an evening out with friends in which she drank the equivalent of 30 to 40 beers and shots”; the other, an eighteen-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado, died after a night spent “chugging whiskey and wine as part of an initiation ceremony with his fraternity brothers.” Such deaths, as the article makes clear, are not all that exceptional: according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,400 college students between eighteen and twenty-four die each year as the result of excessive drinking.
The campus culture of binge drinking is, as the Times article goes on to suggest, intimately connected to two institutions deeply rooted in American campus life: fraternities and athletics. It’s no accident that some universities, faced with the problem of excessive drinking among undergraduates, have banned the sale of alcohol at both fraternity houses and football games. You’re somehow not surprised to learn that in Boulder, the town’s largest liquor store is owned by the University of Colorado’s athletic director.
The second item, which appears on page E10 of the Arts section, is a boldly cheery, rather eye-popping full-page advertisement. It is an advertisement for a new novel. On the left-hand side of the ad there is an image of the mauve and yellow cover of the novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons; just below is a schedule of the author’s US tour appearances. On the right is the familiar figure of the journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe; he is standing in one of his white suits and looking into the camera with an expression—half frown, half grin—that suggests both resolution and bemusement, as if to say, simultaneously, “I did it!” and “What am I doing here?” The explanation of this expression is to be found in the upper-left-hand corner of the ad: “Look who’s getting into college.”
This line is meant to convey the information that Wolfe, who from the beginning of his career, first as a reporter and later as a novelist, has been an acute and extremely popular satirist of the pretensions of whatever scene he chooses to focus on—hippiedom (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), self-congratulatory liberalism (Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, 1970), the art world (The Painted Word, 1975), the architecture world (From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981), the space program (The Right Stuff, 1979), the Eighties (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987)—has now found another victim. As it happens, the college that Wolfe has gotten into is, in many respects, a place identical …