two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
By: 
Tom Wolfe
user_rating: 
0

Charlotte Simmons, 18, is brilliant, beautiful, and very naïve about life outside her small, poverty-stricken, Appalachian hometown. She accepts a full scholarship to Dupont University, an Ivy League-caliber school outside of Philadelphia, and heads off to what she hopes will be a land of academic plenty.

Upon arriving, however, she’s assaulted by a privileged, boy-crazy roommate, co-ed dorms (with co-ed bathrooms!), and a campus culture ruled by sex and alcohol. Her innocence, and her short skirts, soon attract the notice of three suitors: JoJo, a star on the school’s much-ballyhooed basketball team; Adam, nerdy editor of the school paper; and Hoyt, a frat boy searching for his next conquest.

As Charlotte navigates college life, members of the campus become swept up in controversy over an indecent act seen taking place between a willing co-ed and an alumnus, who happens to be governor of California. It’s college life in the ‘00s, what did you expect?
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 676 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 0374281580

Critical Themes

Animal House, circa 2004. What happens when thousands of young men and woman live together with no adult supervision? Careless sex. Binge drinking. Chaos. Nouveau journalist Wolfe interviewed students at East Coast campuses to gather the seamy details for this coming-of-age tale. He presents the collegiate experience of the 21st century as a lusty—and treacherous—journey. The Washington Post, among other critics, asks, "is this an honest portrait of contemporary undergraduate life? I don’t think so."

Jocks. Frats. Manliness. The men who comprise the campus sports teams are the ruling class at Dupont University. Wolfe details the racial tensions brewing on the basketball court, as well as the academic misdemeanors the players commit in class. Beer-obsessed fraternity brothers are second in command. Throughout, Wolfe reports with "an awed (and entirely sexist and entirely homoerotic) respect for the animal powers of young men" (Slate). Though the central character is female, critics agree that "the real subject is manliness" (Wall Street Journal).

Innocence under peer pressure. Wolfe opens the novel with a telling epigraph: A group of laboratory cats has their brains altered, rendering them super-sexual. Meanwhile, another group of cats observes the modified animals. Soon enough, the "normal" felines begin humping everything in sight. In the novel, the titular character arrives at college as a God-fearing virgin. Will she, too, succumb to the hyper-sexualized behavior of her classmates? Does she have a choice? Her fate is predictable, and also grim.

Philadelphia Inquirer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"So many novelists write only about what they know. Wolfe finds out what he wants to know, then writes it up like a dream. To give Wolfe an A-plus on I Am Charlotte Simmons might seem like grade inflation, but it’s really just extra credit where extra credit is due." Carlin Romano

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Not much of I Am Charlotte Simmons is surprising. But, as Charlotte continues her fall into moral purgatory, Wolfe manages to make us feel sorry for her and hope for the best." Tom Walker

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Social satire is everywhere evident, but there is a sober theme, too, and it is very much worth paying attention to." Harvey C. Mansfield

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"Wolfe, and consequently the reader as well, has a great deal of fun with both Hoyt and JoJo, and the drubbing given to Greek life and big-time college athletics … is hilarious, even educational. … Charlotte, Hoyt, Jojo, Adam, and the dozens of others Wolfe gives us never really come to life." Duane Davis

Salon 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is an amalgamation, of sorts, of Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, PCU and Old School, minus the comic pratfalls and with a heavy dose of angst." Priya Jain

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"So: sermon, melodrama, dystopian vision—I Am Charlotte Simmons partakes of all these, and does so stunningly. But it’s still as much polemic as novel. One closes the book feeling soiled by its cloacal vision and emotionally manipulated by its author." Michael Dirda

Milwaukee Jrnl-Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book has a number of problems, but certainly the biggest is that these main characters are so stereotypical as to be almost unbelievable." Curt Schleier

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Wolfe] trains his all-seeing eye on the institution of the American university and emerges with a portrait that, while well-observed and written in [his] trademark sparkling prose, is cliched and at times agonizing to read. … But Charlotte Simmons is never boring and is never not a showcase for its author’s inimitable gifts." Henry Alford

Oregonian 2 of 5 Stars
"The novel is an exaggerated, overlong, overwritten doorstop, one that will tarnish the 74-year-old Wolfe’s previously sterling reputation as a social critic. The plot is as flimsy as the cardboard characters." Jeff Baker

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"When Wolfe detailed how bond traders and speculators work, he caricatured power, always worth doing. Here he is attempting to caricature college life with a ponderous if sharp-clawed intensity quite beyond its subject’s weight." Richard Eder

Christian Science Monitor 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The problem isn’t really the inclusion of so many cliché characters. … What’s galling about this novel is its persistent lack of nuance, its reduction of the whole spectrum of people on a college campus to these garish primary colors." Ron Charles

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Though Mr. Wolfe tries to gussy things up with his hyperventilated prose and a noisy arsenal of narrative bells and whistles, most of his observations will be overwhelmingly familiar to anyone who has been to college, sent children to college, or gone to the movies." Michiko Kakutani

Entertainment Weekly 1 of 5 Stars
"As ever—as we have loved him—Wolfe tears into selected set pieces with flashes of energy. … But far, far too much of the book is propped up by the author’s harrumphing-Humberty shock." Lisa Schwarzbaum

Chicago Sun-Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"At 74, Tom Wolfe has become an old fart. The worst kind of old fart, too: a right-wing scold, a moralizing antique, William Bennett in an ice-cream suit." Henry Kisor

Critical Summary

Wolfe is, as always, a master of language. He shows off "dazzling" prose theatrics (Washington Post) throughout Charlotte Simmons, faithfully replicating the sounds of basketball players mid-action and drunken students mid-coitus. Several set pieces are also extremely powerful. But Wolfe’s words won over only a few critics (in fact, some were nauseated by his countless exclamation points). The problem is that the college experience is nothing new. Unlike his books about high-stakes bond trading (Bonfire of the Vanities) or astronauts preparing for flight (The Right Stuff), this book is … unsurprising. And, according to some critics, it’s also sexist, out of touch, and incredibly cliché.

One of the biggest weaknesses is his central character, Charlotte, the author’s first female protagonist. She’s completely unbelievable. Who could be this smart yet so dangerously clueless? It doesn’t add up. In fact, no matter whom you ask, Wolfe makes outlandish mistakes here. Perhaps it can be blamed on his research. Would any student reveal the complete truth to the well-dressed man in his 70s standing in the corner of a fraternity bacchanal?

A very few critics hint at a deeper, darker message about the current sexual climate lingering beneath his "two-backed beasts herkyjerky humping bang bang bang" (see the Sex on Campus sidebar). Though the overall critical score is low, it should be noted that several reviewers found the book highly readable—almost addictive—even if it has no obvious deep insight to impart.