I would love to tell you that the dandy in the white suit is back. That he has waded into the sewage tank that is contemporary youth culture (white suit be damned!) and returned with a blistering commentary on the rapacious, oversexed early years of the 21st century. But that would be a lie. With I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe continues the painful process of eroding his hard-earned reputation as a cultural arbiter.
Wolfe inadvertently trumpets his own cluelessness in the dedication to this collegiate novel, thanking his two children for correcting his fumbling attempts at “undergraduate vocabulary”—e.g., replacing the old-school fabulous with the ubiquitous awesome. He proudly brandishes ridiculous nuggets of slang (dormcest, sexiled, frostitute) as if auditioning for a job on Sex and the City. He even provides rigorous definitions of such practices as quarters, that obscure drinking ritual. Wolfe treats his subjects as if they were some arcane subculture rather than that hugely familiar swath of the American population known as young people.
The anachronistic heroine is a stand-in for Wolfe himself. Charlotte is 21st-century illiterate, a studious virgin from Appalachia. Upon her arrival at the sophisticated campus of the fictional Dupont University, our ingenue thinks breathlessly: “What colossal heaps of things the young men in the mauve T-shirts were pushing and pulling and humping to the houses!” This Gidget from another planet is aghast at every turn: Coed bathrooms! Rap music! Anorexia! Drunkenness! At her first frat party, Charlotte’s mind boggles at the salacious dancing, the couples “locked mons pubis to mons pubis. She couldn’t believe her eyes! They were simulating . . . intercourse!”
Obviously Charlotte is no ordinary girl. Not only does she use the term mons pubis to describe her fellow collegians’ naughty bits, but she also seems to think of herself in the third person, as indicated by the book’s title. Despite her naïveté, she is apparently an intellectual giant with a will to power instilled by an ambitious, provincial schoolteacher. Charlotte shares these delusions of grandeur with the three boys who fall head over heels for her. Jojo, a white college football star and campus celebrity, decides he’s too smart to be taking easy classes like “Frère Jocko” (which Wolfe kindly translates as “French for Jocks”). Then there’s Hoyt, a hopped-up frat boy who revels in his superiority at every opportunity and sees his elite brotherhood as a MasterCard that “gave you carte blanche to assert yourself.” Finally we meet Adam, a reporter for the school newspaper who thinks he’s a stone-cold genius. Clad in his “quilted forest green Patagonia jacket, the kind that extends all the way down to the hips and has a drawstring enabling one to tighten it at the waist for greater snugness,” Adam indulges in misogynistic thoughts and dreams of becoming a badass rhodie, his nickname for a Rhodes scholar (think Bill Clinton!), which he sees as perfect training for life as a rogue intellectual (Stanley Crouch!).
Wolfe presumably intends I Am Charlotte Simmons to be more than just a bloated, glorified version of The Dating Game, but the book’s neatly crosscut subplots all lead to the same place: Charlotte’s own mons pubis. The narrative’s main suspense stems from the question of which guy will get to break her in, culturally and physically—a question settled in one of the tale’s most grotesque scenes. Although the tome is named after Charlotte, she’s really just a battleground for these male archetypes, not to mention an excuse for Wolfe to expound on masculinity. Hoyt in particular offers his thoughts on how fraternities are all about “the creation of real men”; these passages might have provided some insight into George W. Bush’s mind-set if the cartoon were better drawn. (At one point Hoyt suggests, “If America ever had to go to war again . . . there would only be one source of officers other than the military academies: frat boys.”) Hoyt worships Animal House because it’s “all about being a man in the Age of the Wuss” and despises neurotic whiners like Holden Caulfield—or like Adam, a Jewish wuss seething with resentment against dumb frat boys who breeze through Dupont while he has to work as a pizza boy to pay his way.
If Wolfe hadn’t been so preoccupied with creating a panoramic view of the depraved state of contemporary young people, he might’ve invested a little more time in sweet Charlotte. A red-state girl trapped in a blue-state culture, she finds herself mutating into someone she neither understands nor respects. But becoming the towering Charlotte Simmons of her dreams means sloughing off her old life and being reborn. Some of the novel’s most powerful scenes revolve around her humiliation. On a trip out of town with more worldly students, she marvels at the architecture in the hotel lobby atrium: ” ‘You have to come see this ho-tel! Right over there!’—she pointed—’you look down on this courtyard, with trees and a waterfall, and above it there’s this . . . space, this empty space . . . ‘ ” On and on she goes until a snarky sorority girl in her group snaps, “Every Hyatt has one.” Charlotte’s sentimental education could have been riveting, if only she bore some resemblance to a real person. Instead, Wolfe defines this intellectual-giant-in-training more by which guys are in love with her than by anything that springs out of her mouth.