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 to the one described in the article from the national section.
That place—a fictional Pennsylvania university called Dupont, a Duke look-alike that smolders resentfully just behind Princeton on US News & World Report‘s annual ranking of colleges—is, in many ways, not so different from the teeming terrains that this novelist has explored in such great detail before. In his two previous novels, Wolfe has amused himself by orchestrating his vast, arching plots and metastasizing subplots in ways that cause his favorite themes—race and racism, athletics and masculinity, money and social pretentiousness, political corruption, the South—to explode with a dazzle that illuminates the entire American landscape. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, a car accident involving a Park Avenue investment banker and a black youth from the Bronx projects sets in motion a series of events that ultimately show the otherwise hidden links between the worlds of money, politics, the media, society, race, and class in 1980s New York City. In A Man in Full (1998), an accusation of date rape—the victim a white debutante, the accused a black football star at Georgia Tech—functions similarly as a prism through which are filtered similarly glaring social issues.
I Am Charlotte Simmons also sets out to treat those familiar themes. The novel has, essentially, the form of a Bildungsroman, the Bildung in this case being that of the eponymous heroine, a brilliant eighteen-year-old country girl who, after graduating as valedictorian of her high school in tiny Sparta, North Carolina (population nine hundred), goes on a full scholarship to prestigious Dupont. Charlotte, an unpopular girl who prefers books to boys, has been remarkably sheltered, and it is through her unnaturally innocent eyes that Wolfe intends his reader to perceive the rot at the core of American privilege. (Just in case you don’t guess that this is what Charlotte is there for, Wolfe tells you. “It’s like you came here with clear eyes,” someone says to her admiringly, “and you see things exactly as they are.”)
The rot is symbolized by the exceedingly unappealing students with whom Wolfe stocks his fictional university. Charlotte’s roommate, Beverly Amory—she and her family are obviously intended as vehicles for the author’s send-up of upper-class snobbery—is an anorexic nymphomaniac, the daughter of the CEO of something called the “Cotton Mather Insurance Company” in Boston. (Mr. Amory flies his little girl to her first day of school in his private plane, while Charlotte’s “Momma and Daddy” drive ten hours and back on the same day in order to save the cost of a motel room.) Beverly, who ceaselessly ridicules Charlotte’s countrified ways—and her virginity—is obsessed with “hooking up.” The targets of her lust are the Abercrombie & Fitch–clad fraternity boys who spend their days drinking and watching ESPN, waiting to assume their identities as investment bankers upon graduating. The clean-cut looks of such young men, as pretty much everybody but the preternaturally innocent Charlotte understands, belie a ruthless, even grotesque misogyny. Among other things, they refer to girls as “cumdumps.”
Lording it over everyone are the empty-headed, narcissistic, muscle-bound athletes. These jocks, the campus gods, routinely cheat and plagiarize, confident of the protection of a university administration that is hell-bent on using winning teams as a means of inspiring alumni donations. Again, in case you missed the point, the author has the clear-eyed Charlotte tell you: “You wouldn’t believe how important sports are here,” she writes to her parents.
Inevitably, Charlotte is faced with a moral dilemma during her first semester at college, one that pits the values of those good, plain parents with those of the larger world which she’s encountering for the first time. As the semester wears on, she becomes increasingly torn between her intellectual ambitions (and financial realities: her scholarship depends on her attaining excellent grades) and the pleasures represented by boys—pleasures which, apparently despite her “absolutely clear, open, guileless beauty,” she has never before known, but with which she will become only too well acquainted, given that the only activities that the snotty, cruel students of Wolfe’s fictional university seem to engage in are drinking and fornicating. At first, Charlotte is revolted by the latter: soon after her arrival at Dupont, she goes to a dance and is disgusted at the sight of “all these people rubbing…their genitals together!” But eventually, she comes around.
Like the mythological Paris, Charlotte is presented by her creator with three potential champions, each clearly representing a different stratum of the university’s riven culture. Each one, too, represents a different kind of man; for all that the novel is named after its heroine, this book, like Wolfe’s other fiction (and nonfiction: The Real Thing, for instance), is preoccupied to the point of obsession with masculinity. There is the stud Hoyt Thorpe, a dead ringer for Cary Grant, a suave fraternity boy whose interest in Charlotte has more to do with her rare virginity than with her intelligence or personality. There is Jojo Johanssen, the six-foot-ten starting forward on the university’s nationally ranked basketball team, who is something of a rarity himself. (He’s the only white boy among the team’s bona fide stars, and this allows Wolfe to work the race angle amusingly: “I’m sick of the whole black player thing… If two players have equal ability and one’s black and the other’s white—they just assume the black player’s better…. It’s gotten to the point where it’s a fucking prejudice, if you ask me.”)
Finally, there is the nerdy scholar Adam Gellin, a “Jew without money,” as he thinks of himself, who has secret ambitions to be at the center of a “cenacle” of young intellectuals whose ideas will be the “matrices” of important cultural trends yet to be imagined. Hoyt, puffed up with insights he’s gleaned in his medieval history course, declares one day that all men were once divided into three groups—priests, warriors, and slaves—and it’s clear that the three choices offered to Charlotte are meant to reflect these classes in their Dupont reincarnations.
Sex and alcohol, inevitably, are the sparks that cause this sociocultural tinderbox to ignite in Wolfian fashion. In a prefatory chapter, Hoyt and a fraternity buddy, wildly drunk, come across a distinguished alumnus—the Republican governor of California, destined to be his party’s presidential candidate in the next election—being fellated in a bosky grove by a comely undergraduate female. In this novel as elsewhere, Wolfe is more interested in society—in the dynamics of status—than in politics tout court, and when this information is finally wielded, hundreds of pages later and in predictably damaging ways, the motives have less to do with party allegiances (pretty much all the students at Dupont are too busy rutting to care about politics) than with simmering class resentments. For the information falls into the hands of Adam, who may be a lowly intellectual but also happens to be a reporter for the countercultural student paper, the Wave. By the time the novel is ready for a climax, the tousle-haired, disheveled young man has plenty of reasons to resent both Hoyt, who has sexually “dissed” the girl Adam loves, and Jojo, whom Adam has been hired to tutor (i. e., write his papers for him), and who fatefully “disses” Adam himself one night in a thoughtless display of what Wolfe, who famously loves to wield up-to-the-minute jargon, describes as “alpha-male” behavior.
The ultimate triumph of the “beta males” over the “alpha males”—of, you can’t help thinking, Tom Wolfe over the jocks and studs of the world—is pointedly contrasted with Charlotte’s disintegration. In the end, she is no match for the powerful forces she must contend with—which is to say both libido and, to a lesser extent, class. In the novel’s closing pages, the once-prudish star scholar has been reduced by her own craving for “acceptance” to being arm-candy for a famous college jock, recognized only as his groupie-girlfriend rather than the budding neuroscientist she was only months before. (The novel’s title derives from the phrase she keeps muttering to herself, with ever-decreasing effectiveness, as a reminder of who she really is, and all that she can be.) However up-to-the-minute I Am Charlotte Simmons pretends to be—much has been made of the author’s deep research into the speech and habits of today’s college students—at its center there beats the heart of a nineteenth-century novel, or perhaps opera. It is a text about a fallen woman.