[Paleopsych] Tom Wolfe: Several Reviews and Interviews
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Tom Wolfe: Several Reviews and Interviews
November 8, 2004
I am Still Tom Wolfe; At 73, the man in the white suit is back with a new novel
about sex and power on campus
by Lev Grossman
In 1952 a promising young pitching prospect out of Washington and Lee
University showed up for a tryout with the New York Giants (the baseball
Giants, that is--they hadn't yet decamped for San Francisco). The prospect made
a decent showing: three innings, three men on base, no runs scored. Good
screwball, nice sinker, not much heat. "If somebody had offered me a Class D
professional contract," says the prospect--whose name was Tom Wolfe--many
decades later, "I would have gladly put off writing for a couple of decades."
But the Giants cut Wolfe after two days, and he became a giant of another
kind. Wolfe is one of the greatest literary stylists and social observers of
our much observed postmodern era. With books like The Right Stuff and The
Bonfire of the Vanities, he has built a towering reputation both as a
journalist and as a novelist, scoring both literary acclaim and commercial
success in the process. He has hung out with Black Panthers and astronauts. He
has feuded with John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving simultaneously.
Now, in his new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 676
pages), Wolfe has set himself the challenge of chronicling youthful hedonism on
a college campus. But at 73, can Wolfe party with the frat boys? Or has America
finally outrun its most tireless chronicler?
In uptown Manhattan, perched on a sofa in his sumptuous apartment, with its
housekeeper and its blue baby grand and its views of Central Park, Wolfe in
person is a sharp contrast to his personality on the page. His prose bristles
with italics and exclamation points and repetitions--repetitions!--for
emphasis, but Wolfe himself speaks softly, slowly and a little hoarsely, with
the ruins of a long-ago Virginia accent. He has always been dapper, but now he
is a dapper old man. His appearance is not so much wolfish as avian: his frame
is slight, his nose hooked and beaky, his mischievous smile a little
snaggle-toothed. His hair is midlength and floppy, a la David Spade. He still
wears his trademark white suit, accessorized with some kind of high-gloss
old-timey shoes, but it hangs a little loose on him. When he reads small print
he dons a pair of white-framed glasses.
Wolfe's previous novel, A Man in Full, published in 1998, took him 11 long
years to finish, and when he was finally through, he wasted no time looking
around for fresh territory. He likes to portray himself as a literary
opportunist: in his 1989 manifesto "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," he
scolded American novelists for writing minimalist, self-conscious little books
when there's so much rich, strange, documentary material out there. "They don't
want to see the world," he has said, "they want to suck their thumbs." After A
Man in Full, it occurred to Wolfe, who had a daughter at Duke, that the lives
of college students were a trove of good stuff--there is, he points out, no
really great novel about campus life from the student's point of view. "The
whole business of the co-ed dorm fascinated me. What does go on? Because all
these children assure their parents, 'It's just the way it was when you were in
It was thus that, in his eighth decade, Tom Wolfe swapped his white suit for
a less conspicuous blue blazer and set out on a tour of college campuses in
search of Charlotte Simmons. "I went to fraternity parties," he recalls. "Very
few of the students had any idea who I was. I was so old, and I always wore a
necktie--I must have seemed somewhat odd to them." He trekked from Stanford to
Ann Arbor, from Chapel Hill to the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The
most valuable things were having people tell you about things like sex. I
didn't see any," he adds hastily. What he did see was a kind of boot camp where
teenagers are initiated into the social matrices of sex and power against the
autumnal backdrop of what Wolfe describes as "the gradual--maybe not so
gradual--disappearance of conventional morality."
So who, exactly, is Charlotte Simmons? Wolfe's heroine is a freshman at
prestigious, fictional Dupont University in Philadelphia. They don't come much
fresher than Charlotte. A native of tiny, remote Sparta, N.C., the brilliant,
virginal Charlotte arrives at Dupont full of dewy ambition, expecting to live
"a life of the mind." Instead, she encounters charming, predatory frat boys
like the handsome Hoyt Thorpe; jock demigods like basketball star Jojo
Johanssen; and icy prep-school snobs like her roommate, the bitchy Groton grad
Beverly. Instead of an ivory tower, she finds a status-obsessed, intellectually
bankrupt sexual romper room. Will she hold to her ideals or be dragged down
into the beer-soaked mud?
I Am Charlotte Simmons isn't like Wolfe's other novels. For one thing, he
sticks largely to one setting, the Dupont campus--he's not doing his
city-hopping, class-transcending billion-footed-beast act, which is impressive
but gave his earlier books a certain overstuffed lumpiness. Charlotte Simmons
adheres more to the Aristotelian unities--time, place and action--and thus
hangs together more neatly. It's a much more personal novel than the earlier
ones. Not unlike Wolfe, Charlotte is a permanent outsider, a lonely observer.
Wolfe's books are usually more about setting than character, but Charlotte's
delicately drawn highs and lows give the book an unexpectedly tender heart. "I
went through a bout of depression myself," he says, "and that's why I felt I
knew exactly how she would feel. As I look back on it, there's a lot of me in
No one can read Charlotte Simmons without picking nits. There was a time
when Wolfe was a pioneer, reporting back to straight America from the exotic
island of radical youth culture in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but nowadays American culture
and youth culture are basically the same thing, and it's Wolfe who looks a
little behind the times. He leans heavily on catchphrases from such movies as
Swingers ("You're money, baby") to give his dialogue a contemporary vibe. There
are missteps: What self- respecting black hoopster would say of a Caucasian
opponent, however stalwart, "That white boy's got heart"? And are college kids
really still into 90210 and Animal House? They certainly don't have
PlayStation3s, as such a machine does not, at press time, exist. Sometimes
Wolfe has the air of a benevolent, fastidious Martian, as when he expends
several sentences explaining the nature and function of what we humans call a
But these nits, once picked, should be discarded and forgotten. What remains
is a rich, wise, absorbing and irresistible novel. Wolfe does things with
words--exhilarating, intoxicating, impossible things--that no other writer can
do. Take this example, from the second page of the book, in which frat boy Hoyt
stares at himself in the mirror, dead drunk: "A gale was blowing in his head.
He liked it. He bared his teeth. He had never seen them quite this way before.
So even! So white! They vibrated from perfection. And his square jaw ... that
chin with the perfect cleft in it ... his thick, thatchy light brown hair ...
those brilliant hazel eyes ... his! Right there in the mirror--him!" To read it
is to feel both the dizzy joy of intoxication and the impending hangover, not
through anything Wolfe tells us but from the altered, manic rhythms of the
Wolfe does not thunder in I Am Charlotte Simmons. He allows us to be as
shocked or as blase as we want to be about the anonymous campus couplings he
describes. "In my mind, it's just what's there," he says. "I must say, I pride
myself on the fact that I don't think anybody can find a political agenda, a
moral agenda. I insist that I am objective." Up to a point, that is--he'll bend
the truth for the sake of a good line. "I had a groupie at the end deliver what
I thought was a quite cogent remark," he recalls. "'Every girl wants to f___ a
star. Every girl.' My daughter said, 'Nobody talks like that, Dad.'" This time
his grin is a little lupine. "But I left it in."
I Am Charlotte Simmons will get attention for the smutty scenes, of which
there are a generous but judicious number (he considered and then omitted a
scene involving what he nicely terms, in his courtly Virginia accent, a "gang
bang"). But Wolfe's interest is not prurient. His real subject is the nature of
identity, of the individual soul (Charlotte's in particular), and whether or
not it can survive uncorrupted in the acid storm of sex and alcohol and power
and peer pressure into which we ritually plunge our young in the name of higher
education. The answer he arrives at is not simple. Some get their comeuppance
in Charlotte Simmons, and some are redeemed, but Charlotte's fate is a
surprise, and not everybody will find it a pleasant one. Wolfe may be getting
old, but he 's not getting soft.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
For every era, there's a Tom Wolfe book that grabs its essence and splatters
it on the page. Here's a decade-by-decade history lesson, Wolfe-style
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST
Take the ultimate psychedelic road trip on Ken Kesey's magic bus
THE RIGHT STUFF
Wolfe's inside look at test pilots and NASA astronauts is also a celebration
of American optimism
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES
The quintessential warts-and-all portrait of New York City in the decade of
A MAN IN FULL
Irrational exuberance overtakes a high-flying Atlanta real estate magnate.
Bad things follow
"I WENT TO FRATERNITY PARTIES. I WAS SO OLD, AND I ALWAYS WORE A NECKTIE--I
MUST HAVE SEEMED SOMEWHAT ODD TO THEM. "
November 17, 2004
THE CAT IN THE HAT; INTERVIEW Tom Wolfe
By Gaby Wood
The research for his third novel, 'I Am Charlotte Simmons', took dandy
provocateur Tom Wolfe on a tour of America's college campuses.What did he find?
Lots of sex and not nearly enough hats.
I'm the last of the great hat wearers, ' says Tom Wolfe as he takes my
coat. I have just entered the novelist's sumptuously decorated apartment on
Manhattan 's Upper East Side, a place where almost every wall has some image of
a hat on it. ' I remember when you used to go to the races and everyone was
wearing hats. Nowit's either baseball caps worn backwards, or nothing!' Today
Wolfe is wearing what, presumably, he always wears around the house: a
signature cream-coloured suit, with a wide, almost corset-like waistband built
into the trousers, over a high-necked, cream and brown striped shirt and dark
brown tie. Fanning out of his breast pocket is a cream silk hankie bordered
with infinitesimal brown piping. His shoes, custom made to look like they have
spats sewn into them, are cream and brown, as are his breathtakingly delicate
socks silk, with tiny embroidered polka dots.
He ushers me into the lounge. Late afternoon sunlight streams in through
white slatted shutters and on to a grand piano. There is a lavish, leisurely
feel to it all, a metropolitan home with an overtone of Old South gentility.
Wolfe's long-awaited third novel, 'I Am Charlotte Simmons', is like
'American Pie' meets Zola's 'L'Assomoir'.
Charlotte, a wide-eyed, small-town virgin from the South, arrives at the
fictional university of Dupont, and finds that academia is the least of her
worries when there are co-ed dorms, promiscuous roommates, beefy basketball
players and frat boys to deal with. Wolfe describes the sex as if he's
addressing a convention of surgeons: there are references to the 'ilial crest'
and 'pectoral sheath', to 'otorhinolaryngological caverns'. Why did such a
distinguished chronicler of the times a man now in his mid-seventies want
toturn his attention to undergraduates?
'When I was still working on "A Man in Full", ' Wolfe explains, 'which took
me forever, I was so discouraged by that book that I said, "I'm going to drop
it." I'd been hearing stories about college life, and nobody was writing about
it.' He didn't drop the book, but when it was finished he started going across
the country, visiting campuses 'starting at Stanford and working my way east'.
He would hang around for a couple of weeks at a time, going to parties and
getting a feel for the language.
He felt, inevitably, old and 'stupendously overdressed'. 'For the most part
theyreally didn't know what to make of me. At the fraternity parties I'm sure
they found it very odd that someone my age was there at all, and they knew I
was too old to be from the Drug Enforcement Administration. But I always wear a
necktie,so it would have been ridiculous for me to try to fit in.' Aside from
the six years he devoted to working on 'Charlotte Simmons', Wolfe spent almost
a decade at university himself first at Washington and Lee, and then as a
doctoral student at Yale in the mid-'50s. The biggest difference between then
and now, hesays, is sexual. 'Nobody in anybody's administration is going to
say, "Don't do it." They'll say, "Don't harass a girl" if you're a male, and
they'll say, "Use condoms", but that's quite different from saying, "You
shouldn't be doing this! And you girls you shouldn't just give them your body
just because they want it!" And I found this puts a pressure on all
undergraduates. At a university with 5,500 students, like Princeton, that's
5,500 beds that anyone can go to.' Wolfe's two children Alexandra and Thomas
were both at university while he was conducting his research and read and
commented on the manuscript. Though Wolfe concedes he is a 'very old-fashioned'
parent, he insists he's not easily shocked as a reporter. 'When I'm trying to
report on something, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, I really cease caring
about what people are doing. When "The Bonfire of the Vanities" came out and
people started saying, "What a bleak picture of New York", I was totally
surprised. Because to me these were, in the literal sense of the word, awesome
people they created awe and wonder.' Reviews of Wolfe's novel are divided some
wonder why no one had thought of this subject sooner, others can't see what's
new. There is the question of what an old man is doing in a young girl's skin,
and the question of quite how different this scene is from what went on in the
'60s, a decade of which Wolfe himself gave many seminal accounts. 'Well, you
know, so much began in the '60s, ' he sighs when I ask as if to say,
self-parodically perhaps, it's a shame they ever happened.
Wolfe has made a professional point of being an outsider.
The son of an agronomist, he grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and became a
liberalas an undergraduate, because the politics at his university were very
conservative. 'Then I got to Yale and everybody was on the left, and I couldn't
stand all this lockstep thinking.' When he'd finished his PhD, he got a job on
aMassachusetts newspaper, then on the New York Herald Tribune , where he wrote
such a scathing attack on the New Yorker magazine that even JD Salinger, the
notoriously reclusive author of 'Catcher in the Rye', came out of hiding to
condemn it. During the newspaper strike of 1962, he took on a job for Esquire
magazine a piece about stock car racing that was to become 'The Kandy-Kolored
Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby'. Legend has it that, about to miss his
deadline, he sent in 49 pages of breathless notes; the editor had planned to
getanother writer to put them into shape, but when he saw them he ran them as
they were, and 'the New Journalism' was born. It was a genre in which Wolfe
famously coined the terms 'radical chic' and 'the Me decade', and successfully
offended the artistic, literary and political establishments.
Wolfe says now that 'at first the piece was just an exercise, but I will
confessthat by the time I'd gotten about ten pages into it I thought: This
really isn'tso bad, and by the end I was even beginning to think in a literary
way about it'.
It was also on this early assignment that he realised undercover reporting
was not for him. 'I quickly found out it was madness, because if you're trying
to fit in, you can't ask certain very basic questions, ' he explains. 'People
were always using this term, the "overhead cam". I had no idea what an overhead
cam was, and if you're pretending to fit in, you can't ask. So now I use the
man from Mars approach: I don't know a thing about what you're doing, but I'm
reallyinterested. For me, that seems to work.' Hence the cream suits. In case
you thought he had ever got truly down and dirty with the counterculture, Wolfe
tells a story about helping author and psychedelic pioneer Ken Kesey to move a
sculpture. The sculpture was covered in wet paint, and Wolfe got some of it on
his jacket. He went 'berserk', grabbing a bottle of turpentine and pouring it
over his shoulder.
Kesey said, 'If you mess around with this shit, some of it's going to rub
off onyou.' But how much of it really has? Wolfe recommends to me, in passing,
the work of a neurologist he likes a man famous, he says, for standing in a
bullring wearing a white smock. Much is always made of Wolfe's dandyism, but is
his dress sense something other than that, a way of indicating that he is an
observer, a social scientist? Is the cream suit the flbneur's equivalent of a
You might wonder why the man who gave non-fiction an energy fiction had
long lost would want to write novels at all.
Wolfe says he was sensitive to the insinuation that 'New Journalism was
just a complicated form of writer's block'.
Something of a late bloomer (he was 32 when he wrote his first article, 48
when he married his wife, Sheila Berger), Wolfe was in his fifties by the time
he thought: 'I didn't want to end my career and look back and say, gee I wonder
what would have happened if ' 'Bonfire of the Vanities' came out in 1987, and
sold millions of copies. 'A Man in Full' took 11 years to write, and did
likewise. And now there is 'Charlotte Simmons'.
He still thinks the novel is dying, a thesis he has embraced, much to the
rage of the men he calls his 'three stooges' Norman Mailer, John Updike and
John Irving since he wrote an essay on the subject in 1989. Though thanks to
younger realist writers, he says, things are looking up. Wolfe particularly
admires Richard Price (author of 'Clockers') and Jonathan Franzen ('The
Corrections'), and thinks the thriller writer Carl Hiaasen has great literary
'No one, ' he once said, 'has ever been injured in a literary fistfight in
New York.' Perhaps this was because, by the time he and the three heavyweights
came to blows, the worst, for Wolfe, had already passed. In 1996, he underwent
a quintuple heart bypass operation. There followed a period of intense activity
( 'hypomania', he now sees), then a spell of depression. Never one to faff
about with Freud, Wolfe had some drugs prescribed and was soon able to finish
'Psychoanalysis, ' he informs me, 'was put out of business by Lithium, a
very simple dr it's not even a drug at all, it's an element!'
On the way out, Wolfe shows me his study. His desk looks all Louis Quinze
on thesurface, but is in fact more madcap than that. Wolfe, who still uses a
typewriter, has nevertheless designed a whole electrical system to ensure no
wires are visible anywhere. His electric pencil sharpener, his ship's clock,
histape recorder and his radio (taken from an old Cadillac) are all built in
and within arm's reach. Books are neatly stacked; papers are arranged in
cream-coloured files and labelled in red calligraphy.
All over one wall are drawings referring to or depicting him. There is a
New Yorker cartoon ('I'm afraid Tom Wolfe and I have differing views of New
York, ' a wealthy woman says to her shopping companion while hailing a cab), a
David Levine caricature from the New York Review of Books , and Wolfe's
favourite, a mention in an original Marvel comic strip featuring Dr Strange
('Tom! Tom Wolfe! ' Dr Strange cries out. 'I haven't seen you since you were
just a Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby!') all of them testaments
to hiseccentricity and fame. I ask him how he feels about mortality. 'I don't
think much of it, ' he laughs. 'Immortality now that would be good stuff.' 'I
Am Charlotte Simmons' is out now, published by Cape. See John O'Connell's
review inBooks, p77.
TOM WOLFE WHAT YOU NEED TO READ
'The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby' (1965)
Wolfe's first collection. 'There Goes (Varoom!Varoom! ) That Kandy Kolored
(Thphhhhhh! ) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh! ) Around the Bend
(Brummmmmmmmmmm . . . . )' is the only essay you'll ever need to read about
customised stock cars.
'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' (1968)
In which Wolfe embraces the fugitive world of scholar, athlete and novelist
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who trekked across the US in a
multicoloured buswreaking psychedelic havoc.
The title refers to their beverage of choice: KoolAid laced with LSD.
'Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers' (1970)
'Radical Chic', which gave the world the expression, describes a gathering
of hip young things at Leonard Bernstein's Park Avenue duplex in honour of the
militant Black Panther Party.
The limits of liberalism is also the subject of 'MauMauing '.
'The Right Stuff' (1979)
The US space programme, rapturously mythologised. The selection of the
Mercury astronauts in 1959 divided the flying community. Wolfe puts you right
there , sothat you know how it feels to be sitting in a tin can, far above the
'From Bauhaus to Our House' (1981)
Hilarious rant about modern architecture, specifically its failure to evoke
the might of America's economic power: 'Every child goes to school in a
building that looks like a duplicatingmachine replacement-parts wholesale
'A Man In Full' (1998)
Long-awaited second novel that melds broadcanvas portraiture with
set-pieces like the quail hunt at hero Charlie Croker's 29,000-acre plantation.
Indifferently received by critics but there's nothing more compelling than a
AND ONE TO AVOID
'The Bonfire of the Vanities' (1987)
Having decided that all modern novels were rubbish, Wolfe had a bash at
writing one himself in full-on Dickensian social realist mode. The result is a
yuppy morality tale that, although technically accomplished, hasn't dated well.
Slate Magazine November 17, 2004, Wednesday Correction Appended
I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Virginia Heffernan and Stephen Metcalf
The Three Hopeless Flaws of I Am Charlotte Simmons By 11/17/2004 12:56:18 PM
Virginia! We meet again! There is so much to say about Tom Wolfe, I Am
Charlotte Simmons, and the university life this new novel purports to depict,
that I'll skip all introductory coughing and dive right in. I Am Charlotte
Simmons is a sprawling anatomy of undergraduate life that centers on four main
characters: the implausibly naive character of the book's title, and the three
male students who, with varying intentions, attempt to woo her: Hoyt Thorpe, a
smirking, born-on-third-base frat boy in the George Bush mold; Jojo Johansenn,
a hulking power forward for the school's NCAA championship basketball team; and
Adam Gellin, a vengeful nerd who writes for the school newspaper. This is an
eminently foolish book, by an old man for whom the life of the young has become
a grotesque but tantalizing rumor. It is overdrawn, overlong, underconsidered,
and filled with at least one forehead-slapping ay caramba per page. (That adds
up to 676, by the way. This is the predictable doorstop, perfectly timed for
seasonal gifting.) At one point I wrote in its margins, The stupidity here may
actually be boundless. And yet... and yet... I kinda liked I Am Charlotte
Simmons, ripe for the pyre as it is. I'm glad we have three days here, to help
discover how this unsacred monster, with its raft of insecurities and no social
graces to speak of, holds some inexplicable power to... well, not charm,
Going in, there's one thing you can say about Tom Wolfe: At least he's no
worse than Tom Wolfe. About Wolfe's preposterous claims regarding the novel as
a genre, I'll have more to say in the next couple of days. But his disdain for
the overly literary is a real boon to his reviewers. The prose rates a perfect
10 for ease of use; and so, long as this book is, you glide right through it
without a hitch. Wolfe will occasionally flash the Nabokovian smile "the
shrubbery at Wolfe's made-up Dupont University is euonymus, its cafeteria
bathroom emits an egestive funk "but mostly he writes in a fat novel,
book-of-the-month style, totally uninfected by modernity (much less
post-modernity), and readily adaptable to its every soft-core need: Instead his
tongue veered off to the side and worked its way down the gulley from her
illial crest down to where her panties began. And finally "and most important
"in its unrelenting drive to leave nothing unsaid, I Am Charlotte Simmons
relieves its reader of all the burdens of the imagination: He amounted to a
male low in the masculine pecking order, Wolfe describes an athletic department
tutor, who is angry, deserves to be angry, is dying to show anger, but doesn't
dare do so in the face of two alpha males, both of them physically intimidating
as well as famous on the Dupont campus.
OK, even in praising it, I can't hide my overwhelming dislike for this novel
"it's put me in an egestive funk "so time to lay out its most obvious
deficiencies. Three related and unaccountable choices inform the structure and
substance of I Am Charlotte Simmons. The first is the wholly incredible nature
of Wolfe's Dupont University. Wolfe is unequivocal: Dupont is an institution
mentionable in the same breath only with Harvard. And yet, in Wolfe's
depiction, it's more like a land grant school crossed with the Thunderdome. The
jock subculture exists nearly everywhere (I went to Wesleyan, of cafeteria
pot-smoking and Womynist House fame, and I'm here to tell you: Jock subculture
is everywhere) but Wolfe portrays it as the single, utterly dominant fact of
campus life and virtually the sole medium for sorting out the status pecking
order of the young. Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 1, then, is that Wolfe has
somehow run together Harvard with N.C. State, thus producing a complete
By his own telling out on the promotion circuit, to research I Am Charlotte
Simmons Wolfe toured several American campuses, talking to undergraduates about
their experiences. This leads to Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 2. For on his
journey through the groves of academe, Wolfe appears to have collected every
bit of sexual folklore, no matter how hand-me-down, and bought into it hook,
line, and sinker. Dupont is a place where women on a nightly basis cake on
makeup and crawl, in an abject drunken stupor, up to lacrosse players, begging
them for psychic validation in the form of brutally commitment-free sex. For
the credulous Wolfe, even Ivy League college life seems to be one endless
cloacal flow, filled only with beer bongs, body-sculpting, and animal rutting.
And this leads, finally, to Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 3. By imagining
college life as so debased, Wolfe must then imagine his heroine as
correspondingly pure. Charlotte Simmons is a little mountain girl, a modern-day
Walton, who has known in her life only hard study, dutiful but dirt poor
parents, and the simple mountain ways of North Carolina. (And the novel hasn't
seen such a tediously guarded virginity since Richardson's Pamela.) Well,
that's it for starters, Virginia. We'll be revisiting each of these as we go, I
suspect. I'll finish with a question and one last observation. First the
question: What did you make of all the abs, delts, pecs, and various slabs of
muscle, loving descriptions of which are larded "excuse the mixed metaphor
"into virtually every chapter?
And here is the observation: Dutiful Tom Wolfe, the little naiad in his
white suit and his notebook, trucking off to university after university to do
his research. Compare this to the genesis of the greatest academic satire ever
written, the category killer known as Lucky Jim. In 1948, Philip Larkin's old
college chum Kingsley Amis visited him at the University College at Leicester,
where the young Larkin had recently been appointed librarian. As Amis recalled
his visit to the Senior Common Room years later, [I] looked around a couple of
times and said to myself: 'Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.'
Not that it was awful "well, only a bit; it was strange, and sort of developed,
a whole mode of existence no one had got onto, like the SS in 1940, say. I
[decided I] would do something with it. That was it: a turn of the head in the
Common Room; a few sniggering letters to and from Larkin. But between their
four eyes they managed to nail the enterprise, and for all time. But of course,
as Wolfe would remind us, it was six eyes: Larkin was a myopic, bespectacled,
spectral geek, a weakling who devoted a lifetime to his own self-pity. And
besides, what do you think that pays, librarian?
The Wolfe in Rut By 11/17/2004 3:51:23 PM
Hi, Stephen! Steve-O! Steve-man! The Night of the Skull Fuck! Hillbilly
Damn, I am already violating my vow not to channel the enchanting voice of
Wolfe's frat guys or any of his bozo characters. But you gotta love those
particular bonebrains (hey, hey, U.Va.) and also this book is date-raping me.
I agree there's much to say. In regular Slate pundity sentences, even. But
do we have to be the ones to say it? My first response to finishing the book
has actually been to savor the silence, since I'm worn out, having been shouted
down by that loudmouth Wolfe and his twerpy T.A.s "Jojo, Hoyt, Adam, and yes
Charlotte, our Maiden No More. Can't you and I, fresh from the 676-page
exhortation to "what? "face facts?, now relish a quiet duller world, the one
between Wolfe productions, free of ruttingruttingrutting and fake Ebonics and
typographical stunts like::::::STATIC::::: and the grinding of the mons pubis?
And, with that, my second response: to get to the task of exchanging glances
with everyone who's lugging this unmistakable $28.95 hardcover around that
says, OK, hi, what is it with 'mons pubis' and 'cleft in the rear declivity'
and 'winking navels'? Why does Wolfe introduce these wack expressions as though
they 're fresh wit and he hasn't used them a half-dozen times on the facing
I am trying to come up with a glance that can convey this.
Finally, my third response is to go to you, Steve, and concede first that,
all right, the shouting is style, but what about those glitches? This book is
made of glitches! Strange mistakes that speak of cognitive irregularities in
the maker, to say nothing of an absent editor. I'm not complaining so much as
brooding. How do they happen?
Charlotte looked at the pair with a sinking heart. Crissy and Nicole. On top
of everything else, they were both "ey girls. All the cool girls at Dupont, the
ones who were with it, were "ey girls "Beverly, Courtney, Wheatley, Kingsley,
Tinsley, Avery, and now Crissy. Of course, there was Nicole...and Erica...but
thinking of Erica made her sink still farther "
What in hell? I'm sure you see, but I'll spell it out: First, neither Crissy
or Nicole are -ey girls, if "ey girls have names that end in ey. Second, Nicole
is Nicole, so why is she an exception to a list that includes Nicole?
I guess this could seem like a trivial thing, and maybe it's manly to just
slop out your prose and leave small-minded fault-finding to the typing pool.
But, when they recur, slips like this one "which are now common in literary
fiction in our post-book-editor world "addle the critical mind, since they
suggest very badly wrought urns. It's especially stupefying when evidence of
carelessness capsizes one of Wolfe's pedantic passages, as above; just as he's
coining phrases and codifying distinctions most aggressively, he falls off the
dais "and we can't trust him. If I had more stamina for deconstruction, I'd try
in fact to prove that this passage is the very heart of the matter, the proof
that Wolfe's social taxonomies, which are this book's sine qua non, are lazy
lies. Moreover, this other me would argue that the text's mischief is to
disclose, over and over, the fraudulence of those taxonomies.
But why bother, really? Shouts, lies, mistakes "who cares? I Am Charlotte
Simmons is, as you say, marvelously easy sledding; it's thoroughly disarming, a
breeze to read, even thrilling. Yeah, there's a devil's deal in it, but once
you make that deal "stop counting the gaffes, stop tracing out The stupidity
here may actually be boundless in the margins "this novel's got the enzyme that
makes you crave it. Don't you think? It's really working the whole Tom Wolfe
soothsayer thing, present in the Geertz-like thick descriptions of things like
moving in to a freshman dorm; parents' fearful interaction with your roommate
and her parents; the boring and sexual atmosphere of a dormitory Common Room
late at night; uncomfortable hours spent with bland, unlikable freshman
friends; the fudging of facts and tone involved in letters home; the drudgery
and ecstasy of fraternity parties; the appearance of a shared hotel bathroom on
a college road trip
Wolfe reminds me of John Edward of Crossing Over. From a few data points
"derived in this case from his fact-finding college tour "he supplies
connective material and nuance until he seems, as I live and breathe, to be
talking to the dead. You may know just how he does this "gets a page of Cosmo
Girl or the liner notes to a Ben Harper CD and spins it into what seems like a
narrative miracle amid novels by Iowa-trained senior citizens who never leave
their Tidewater farmhouses. But even as I fought to keep my head clear I found
myself thinking, on the brink of tears, How does he know this about my college
life? It was just like this! (True, I don't really know how John Edward does
I also admire the way some of Wolfe's warhorse effects undergird the nouveau
speech act he's evidently interested in here: the Affirmation. I'm not sure, in
other words, that "as you say "postmodernism, or its tricks, have passed Wolfe
by. When he gets into free-indirect discourse, which is pervasive "later I may
remember this as a book narrated by Charlotte Simmons, but of course it's in
the third person, with Wolfe visiting several consciousnesses very closely
"Wolfe leans on a telling locution. He'll write, But he, Jojo, Jojo Johannsen,
of whom they all chanted 'go go, Jojo,' could not be seen doing this! or But
he, Hoyt, was the chevalier! or He, Adam, Destiny's Adam Gellin, promised
himself that vengeance was his! Wolfe doubles and triples the names "pronoun
and proper noun and epithet and etc. "reminding us with his boozy, emphatic,
redundant loops that so much of what passes for mental life is just the
repetition of one's name. Virginia, OK, you can do this. Or, rather, I am
Charlotte Simmons. I like this title.
I'm sounding awfully close, I realize, to Samuel Richardson's female
groupies, who raved that he knew their lady-hearts better than they themselves
did. Who knows who, of the aged monster novelists "Bellow, Roth, Updike,
whoever "will win, in the end, in the final final Rapture? (Someone has to,
though; is that an article of faith with you, too?) For now I'm with Wolfe.
P.S.: Let's admit you also went to U.Va. As I did. And also "your question.
This is a dialogue. The traps, lats, delts "yes, there are many references to
them. Personal trainers of America should pay Wolfe for his description of
Charlotte's very clinical way to arousal: running her fingers over his
wonderful abs and lingering in the crevices between the units. But what
doyoumean by calling attention to Wolfe's salaciousness about the college guys?
The cover's got I Am Charlotte Simmons in curly letters right over Tom Wolfe's
initials. Seems like drag to me. I take it for a big, gay book. Not you?
Tom Wolfe's Complicity in the Culture of Machismo By 11/18/2004 12:38:12 PM
Virginia! Ginny! G and T! I was hoping you'd bring up (Wahooo-Wah) our time
together at UVA, where you were an undergrad, I a grad student, and both of us
were in thrall to the great Richard Rorty. (Did you note the complete absence
of the campus maitrepenseur in Wolfe's supposed taxonomy? Wolfe must truly hate
intellectuals. His one humanities professor here is a quivering under-mensch
named Quat.) I started out saying I kinda liked this book, then proceeded to
offer it up to the poleax, so let me revise and extend my remarks. First of
all, all of us, hipster, doofus, hipster-doofus, we're all going to converge on
one personality type in the end, the incredulous fuddy-duddy for whom the young
appear as savages. And so yes, Heff, I think this is a drag show, in which
Wolfe dresses up as the improbably spotless Charlotte, the better to make his
own censorious way through Gomorrah; and in doing so, he speaks for the Active
Liver in all of us. Second, I agree, he gets something dismayingly right here.
By presenting a vision so loveless and unchastened by adult perspective, I Am
Charlotte Simmons brings you back, uncannily, to what it feels like to be
young: overwhelmed, self-pitying, somehow both painfully anonymous and sticking
out like a sore thumb. The question I still can't puzzle out is: Are these
genuine virtues, or only more flaws in what amounts to an egregious mistake of
a novel? Or, put another way: Isn't it Wolfe here who is being shallow?
It strikes me there are three possible defenses of I Am Charlotte Simmons.
The first we can dispense with quickly enough: It is not funny, therefore it is
not a satire. The second is that it is a fair piece of reportage from the front
lines. And yet Wolfe, whose eye for social distinctions is purported "by Wolfe,
at least "to be so keen, gets so much so baldly wrong. You would not believe
how important sports are here! Charlotte writes home to her parents. Wrong!
Charlotte went to a rural high school, where sports stars are treated as
demigods. Her parents would readily understand the mentality. Wolfe has
Charlotte's roommate, Beverly, a skeletal boarding school graduate and a
four-alarm bitch, be conversant in pop culture, while Walton-mountain Charlotte
is a near pop culture illiterate. Wrong! The principal medium of assimilation
in America now is television, which is universal among the young. No one
doesn't plug in and master its basic argot "with one possible exception: the
children of the very privileged, who get tucked away in Groton for four years,
to develop some silly argot of their own. (I know: true confession "I'm married
to a Charlotte Simmons and was sent to prep school.) Also, Wolfe has virtually
zero comprehension of the mechanics of the reverse snobbery now so common in
the ranks of the upper meritocracy, going so far as to claim Charlotte envies
Beverly for being wellborn, a locution straight out of Thackeray.
OK, I'm reaching for the poleax again. I'll set it aside and admit that
once, while at UVA, a frat boy exiting Daddy's sports car turned to me and
said, What are you looking at, whereupon I promptly shrank into my cardigan. I
sympathize with a certain horror, and a certain fascination, for the culture of
machismo, and increasingly machisma, among the young. But what struck me about
this 'roided up book, so imposingly large without being dense or powerful, was
how complicit in this culture Wolfe makes himself. I was reminded of a passage
in Balzac, one of the social realists Wolfe makes such a great show of
admiring, where he describes a certain Celestin Crevel. Crevel suffers from
retrospective envy, Balzac tells us and then adds: No one knows how much
obvious bad taste this retrospective envy accounts for; and we cannot tell how
many wildly foolish actions are due to the secret rivalries that drive men to
mirror the type that they have set up as an ideal, to consume their energies in
making themselves a moonshine reflection of someone else.
Now, we know exactly how Balzac feels about this silly Crevel, whose weak
personality has been left to forever wriggle upon his nail. You will say: But
Wolfe is a modern novelist, whose own attitude can't be so plainly injected
into the narrative. But Wolfe everywhere injects himself into his narrative.
When weakling Adam demands that Charlotte snap out of her depression, she
abruptly stopped crying and stared up at Adam with her mouth slightly open and
her tearful eyes shining with respect bordering oddly on pleasure, as women
sometimes do when a man claims the high ground and rebukes them. Later, in a
similar situation: [T]here was also, unbeknownst to either of them consciously,
a woman's thrill! "that's the word for it! "her delicious thrill! "when a
man expands his chest and drapes it with the sash of righteousness and
takescommand upon the Heights of Abraham. Here, Heffster, I think we can start
to make sense of all the abs, pecs, delts, lats. For everywhere in this book,
Wolfe combines his powerful distaste for the decadence he has encountered, with
an enormous respect for the animal quest for sexual dominance, which he
believes is the transcendental fact of human existence. This is why the book is
so strangely incoherent, while being so strangely compelling: Wolfe has found
among the young habits he finds genuinely repulsive, but they are attached to
an honest, almost Nietzschean, acknowledgment of the inner workings of status.
Wolfe may be appalled by booze, crunking, and bling bling, but he has an awed
(and entirely sexist and entirely homoerotic) respect for the animal powers of
Heffster "in my big, gay heart, I know Wolfe cannot prevail in his quest for
the laurel, against Bellow, Roth, Updike. Tomorrow I will unveil my pet theory!
In the meantime: You think he will?? I can't wait to hear you spin this one!
Soul and the American Imagination By 11/18/2004 4:09:16 PM
Steve! Ma tre Steve! The Stevedore! "
On reading that you're married to a Charlotte Simmons, something perhaps
ludicrous occurred to me: Do you think it's possible that Charlotte has a shot
at joining the real top sorority, the literary answer to the University of
Virginia's Thursday Club, that triple-elite girls' drinking club comprised of
sorority all-stars from the top three, Kappa, Theta, and Tri-Delt? You know the
analog clique I mean "the one with Scarlett O'Hara, Becky Sharp, and Blanche
Is Charlotte, in other words, a character hearty enough to survive being
abstracted from her natural habitat, Wolfe's indifferent prose, and turned into
a figure in movies, metaphors, television, conversational idiom "exploitation
in other media? (That which every virgin fears and seeks?)
I ask not out of concern for the Charlotte Simmons movie (Scarlett
Johansson? Lindsay Lohan?), but because somewhere, maybe 10 years ago, I came
across a winning essay arguing that Henry James' characters' shortcoming is
that they cannot break out of his symbolic order and live freely in our
imaginations; they 're like helpless preemies and unviable without James' thick
prose to keep them breathing (and even then, they're hyperventilating). It's
true you rarely think, That guy is such a Lambert Strether. The argument was
further made "as I recall it "that something about Margaret Mitchell's visual,
anticerebral style was bracing to her characters, toughening them up, and
allowing them to form real edges. Thus they could be lifted out. And resold.
But what is good for characters "the repetition of their names, the physical
descriptions, the tedious shorings up of what each one means (male low on the
masculine pecking order, etc.) "may not be good for an author's reputation.
James gets to be first-rate because his characters are subordinated to his
style. Wolfe gets pushed around by critics because he lets his characters take
center stage, and thus seems weak.
I love it, and you're right, that entropy will work on the cafeteria tables,
too "that old age often just is the convergence of cool people and losers,
brought together in mutual bewilderment over where the time has gone. Getting
the most out of life, as I see it, may require resistance to this dangerous
cool-mixing, and for that reason I will now confess that some part of me looks
forward to starting all over again, with cliques and status and infighting, at
an old folks' home one day I hope to go down loftily snubbing someone for the
wrong jeans or at least being snubbed.
But it's time to admit that we, we with our unsullied and merely mimetic
relationship to the stuff of this embarrassing and likable novel, are not the
only ones talking about it. The reviewers are out in force, and most of them
are wrong. A recent Times op-ed about I Am Charlotte Simmons makes much of
Charlotte 's moral abandonment at a university where, among other affronts,
Professor Victor Ransome Starling (the sublime neuroscience dude, with the
Nobel Prize; is he not our ma tre penseur?) can use the word soul only in
I disagree with the many bad reviews the book has gotten, because I consider
this book a glorious beating, but at this defense of it I really gnash my
teeth. Granting that the Starling soul moment is significant in Wolfe's novel
"and it isn't, since what's actually significant about Starling is that he's
religious, anti-atheist, and sympathetic even to Charlotte's wholesale critique
of Darwin; Starling also dwells on Darwin's piety as well as his own faith in
the self, which at my much more conservative college I was taught was a
construct, Q.E.D. "I wonder where the moral utopia is in which soul is used
straight. Sports writing? Jewel songs? As you and I know from graduate school,
intellectuals perpetually rediscover the soul "a recent MLA panel on the
subject was packed "and, furthermore, chastise themselves for their detachment
from it. This reformation is, in fact, among everyone's favorites, in the
academy and out: it 's like a musical in which the lovers are witty at the top,
and then come to Believe in Love and cast off those mean, defensive quotation
That moral operation, the stripping of quotation marks, which is regularly
foisted on us, is mighty pretty "but it's shallow, and it's meant only to be
repeated and repeated. Who wants to hear the story after the damn musical? Or,
to bring it back around, the denuded soul is very cute "but who wants it? Are
the neocon men of letters, the ones who keep foisting the soul on us, prepared,
for real, to entertain real questions about the soul "about immortal life and
beatitude and purgatory and how we recognize our friends in the hereafter and
what happens to the body and are we points of light or whatever?
No. That stuff is creepy. Let's face it: No one wants to hear a Charlotte
Simmons yammer on for one minute after she's remembered Jesus died for our
sins; they just want to see her get the irony raped out of her.
Superficially, in fact, the soul issue reminds me of Wolfe's annoying and
commonplace tic, when rendering dialect, of phoneticizing haphazardly. Take
everybuddy, which one of Charlotte's dad's Sparta cronies says, near the
beginning of the book. Why spell it that way? Everybody says everybuddy! In
fact, everybuddy is spelled everybody. Likewise, children of America, no matter
what the neo-soulful people try to tell you, nobody uses soul without some kind
of quotation marks. (Even if they're there to reprove you for even thinking
quotation marks.) Not even in good, wholesome places like Sparta or the exurbs
or the places where they know that Kerry was faking his faith. Soul takes
quotation marks! Get it right!
For Wolfe, Life Is All About Status By 11/19/2004 5:16:45 PM
It pains me to bring my half of this dialogue to a close; it's been such a
pleasure. I love your distinction between the stuff we sense that Scarlett O
'Hara and Becky Sharp are made of and the stuff "the indifferent literary prose
"that made them. But methinks you may have lighted a Candle in the Wind here:
Poor Charlotte will likely never break free of her creator. I see her holy
innocence, but where is her unholy desire? She has none of the vinegar (or
melancholy) it takes to become even a schlock icon. As to Henry James, he made
it a fair fight only once, with Isabel Archer; she battles for her dignity
against James' ulterior, and not so ulterior, purposes as much as against
Gilbert Osmond, so I'd place her near your trio, if not exactly among them. (As
for literary antecedents for Charlotte, the final one I come up with is the
Lady from Milton's Comus: thou unblemish't form of Chastity. Zzzzzzz.) And by
the by, that'll be me, Virginia, wearing the crappy jeans in the Phase II
cafeteria of the Sunset Park Leisure Care Facility "so watch it.
In all sincerity, here is what I like about Wolfe and this goofy novel. Too
often we extrapolate a set of qualities common to the people who still read
literary fiction, then hold them as expectations when reading fiction itself.
As a result, a lot of awful work "overwritten, overfelt, mincing, and
oppressively fine "gets lazily tabbed literature. By being so unapologetically
middlebrow, Tom Wolfe isn't middlebrow. (He's may not be great, but at least
he's not giving usShopgirl.) Were it left at that, one could respectfully keep
one's Ginsu sheathed. But Wolfe has never been content to leave it at that. The
best piece on how jealously Wolfe argues for his own pre-eminence is still Jim
Windolf's, and I can't pretend to improve on it. But in promoting this latest
novel, Wolfe has been repeating his old saw, about how every human
consideration is finally a status consideration; and he has picked up a
high-profile defender in David Brooks. Now, it's Brooks' job, as the Likable
Conservative, to put a friendly face on the indefensible; and in this column he
almost succeeds in transferring responsibility for Wolfe's awful novel onto its
reviewers. So it's worth explaining why, in addition to being sprawling and
fun, I Am Charlotte Simmons is also hateful and small, and in precisely those
ways that will deprive Wolfe of the literary reputation he so craves.
Wolfe chose the contemporary American university as the setting for I Am
Charlotte Simmons, but the roiling Orgasmatron he lays before the reader will
be familiar to precisely no one. What is a real university in the actual 21st
century actually like? It's a research institution; an intergenerational
transfer station for high culture; a talent sorting mechanism, and thus a
gateway to the professions; and a (give or take) four-year holding pen for the
children of the bourgeoisie. Of these, Wolfe chose to highlight the last, add
some elements of the first, and suppress to near-invisibility two and three. In
sum, Wolfe punched up to phantasmagorical heights everything about a university
related to status, crudely understood, while burying everything about a
university that has to do with prestige. Why? As Wolfe sees it, status is real:
It's rooted in biology and the primitive quest for sexual privilege. Prestige,
meanwhile, is artificial, a conspiracy of the overrefined whose only real power
is the power to shame and exclude. Wolfe has devoted entire swaths of his
career to pointing out how the world of prestige is fraudulent: that modern art
is a scam, that The New Yorker is the product of tiny mummies, and that the
literary novel has become weak, pale, tabescent.
Those who would praise Wolfe for being horrified by the bestial reversion of
the young fail to see how much of a relief this reversion is to Wolfe. After
all, it takes a mammoth effort of willful suppression to depict, over the
course of nearly 700 pages, life at a prestigious university as one entirely
devoid of warmth, friendship, love, belonging, self-mastery, or meaningful
accomplishment "or, for that matter, pleasure of any kind detached from the
brute mastery of others. What terrifies Wolfe most, then, isn't debauchery;
it's cultural snobbery of the sort that routinely assigns Tom Wolfe to the
second or third tier of literary talents. This has become so pathological with
Wolfe that he seems to perceive any social arrangement that allows for
self-refinement or aesthetic contemplation not merely as a fraud but as an
offense against human nature. (Don't believe me? Read I Am Charlotte Simmons,
in which there are two kinds of men: cowards and overlords.) The temptation in
American life is always to give in to this bleak idea, of an endless death
struggle for status, because the basis for American life is Hobbesian
individualism. But the basis for a university, and any culture in which
meaningful value judgments are still possible, isn't Hobbesian; it's
Lawrentian: Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing
community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.
Surely that purpose can't be driving an Escalade or living at 820 Fifth Ave.
Wolfe, though, in his own person is self-refuting. He himself, in his need
for the laurel, for lasting critical esteem, proves that people's desires are
wildly variable and idiosyncratic. He has no end to money and status, and yet
his craving for something more has proven incorrigible. What an interesting
character for a novel! Pity: If only he had learned to navel-gaze a little
better. As it is, his work is news that won't stay news.
An utter delight, Virginia. Be well!Steve
I [Heart] Charlotte By 11/19/2004 10:41:49 PM
I know you hear me, but the headline writers, as well as the charmers at the
Fray, seem to misunderstand me, and now's my only chance to set the record
So here goes: I like this novel. I like it now, having read it, having
talked about it, and having read about it. And I'll keep on liking it. I'll
never stop liking it. The people who like it are right. The people who dislike
it are wrong. To which I am obliged to add: You are wrong.
Charlotte is not an allegorical figment out of Comus. She's a vain, redneck
distance-runner with a kindly and despotic mountain mother and a jalopy Kaypro
computer that her father and brothers fixed up for her because she's also an
intellectual, and intellectuals need computers. Have you ever seen a Kaypro? I
remember light gray-blue casing, the false impression of portability, and a
strange shape; it was as though you had to look down a tunnel, as if into a
stereopticon, to see the green figures on the deep-space black background. Any
undergraduate at a Harvard-like university who is writing papers now on a
Kaypro, especially one rigged by her kinfolk, has a story to tell. That's a
story we'd do well "and here I'll risk the David Brooks line, or the Tom Wolfe
one "to listen to.
(Glimpse a Kaypro here.)
Charlotte is not Chastity. She loses her virginity at 18, which sounds
fairly average to me "not devastating either way "and she falls apart, while
she does, not because she then embodies Sullied Chastity, but for the
worthwhile reasons that college girls usually fall apart: because a guy isn't
calling her and because she's let down her mother.
Dupont University is not a Gomorrah. It is, rather, a place of learning,
with "it must be said "intriguing course offerings. (Wolfe heroically rejects
the long tradition of tedious David Lodge-style parodic course titles, creating
instead Nineteenth-Century Poetry: The Courtly, the Pastoral, and the Symbolist
and The Renaissance and the Rise of Nationalism, with which he makes a point
worth acknowledging: Wolfe still believes in college.)
Dupont does not "miracle! "conform to the popular and now 20-year-old clich
of a university of passionless PC slackers who are morally dead because sex is
no longer the terrifying centerpiece of existence, the way it was for Allan
Bloom and Philip Roth and the other men who came of age before early puberty
and coeducation and the ultimately very peaceable disbanding of the American
branch of the cult of female virginity. Wolfe came of age back then, too, and
he's no doubt been amused and even appalled to hear his twentysomething
daughter's accounts "the book is dedicated to his children* "of how times have
But, unlike those other big daddies, Wolfe evidently really listened to
those girls when he invented Dupont, wresting from them and his other sources
details about bulimic roommates, cell phone use on campus, computer centers,
eye makeup, Diesel jeans, new college cuisine, the Kaypro
Something about the idea of Tom Wolfe doing all that research is endearing;
it constitutes the sweetness of the book. Though scorned for being middlebrow,
Wolfe is among America's few monster novelists to have gotten a Ph.D. (in
American Studies at Yale), which, if it doesn't give him professore status, as
it might in Italy, at least it means he deputized himself to greater minds
before officially putting pen to paper.
Why do I find this book so monumentally moving, like a paper by an ingenious
and strange undergraduate? Put it this way: Wolfe invented a rapper named
Doctor Dis. Doctor Dis! And then he wrote songs for him!
Let's imagine this. Having listened to Nas or Jay-Z on the kids'
recommendation, Tom Wolfe had a daughter help him make out the lyrics. Then he
sat down at his own desk, blank page and rhyming dictionary before him, and
"forgoing yet another chance to write to his strengths (none of his old
subjects are shoehorned into this book, which is also commendable) "he tapped
out the meter to a rap. And produced a cop-killing anthem with enjammed rhymes
and internal rhymes!
Is Jojo's transformation not credible? Are Hoyt's and Jojo's and Beverly's
overwrought family stories abandoned? Do a half-dozen first-act guns not go
off? Are paragraphs here sloppily composed? Are some of the coinages silly? Is
the melodrama melodrama? Are there one thousand departures from verisimilitude?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But there are also 1,001 times where the
truth is rendered conscientiously, with bravado and lightness. And I did laugh
reading this book, and I read it greedily and happily, and my eyes were opened,
and I remember the characters.
I read your entries greedily and happily, too, however! I like your style
and being right isn't everything. This has been truly high times.
An earlier version of this piece misstated that Wolfe has two daughters. He, in
fact, has a son and a daughter. Return to the corrected sentence.
November 29, 2004
Old School:At 73, Tom Wolfe goes back to college. The result? Call it Keg Party
of the Vanities
by Kyle Smith
The man who gave us The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities and even
popularized the phrase "good ol' boy" rarely wears anything but a dazzling
tailor-made white suit. But that changed when author Tom Wolfe fell into a deep
depression a few months after his 1996 heart-bypass surgery. "It is so hard to
get across to anyone who has never been depressed what it's like," Wolfe says.
"You feel that you yourself are worthless. I would start dressing in the
drabbest clothes. [I thought], 'You don't deserve all these trick clothes. You
don't deserve to act charming.'" So what did he wear in his darkest hour? "I
have a couple of brown suits that I consider subdued. Of course these clothes
were all custom-made. My wife probably didn't even notice."
Now Wolfe, 73, is back to his usual resplendence and his customary place
atop bestseller lists with his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, an
alternately hilarious and hair-raising look at a prestigious fictional college
where everyone majors in sex and booze. "Isn't that amazing?" says his friend
Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone publisher who has been printing his work for
more than 30 years. "I mean, this guy's in his 70s, right? And he's just
produced one of the most authentic works about young people ever written. This
is what it is like." But don't take Wenner's word for it. Says Dave Fleming,
26, who met Wolfe when Fleming was a frat brother at the University of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill--one of more than a dozen campuses Wolfe visited--and
chaperoned him around the party scene: "He nailed it pretty good." How does he
do it? "There's a lot of mojo in that white suit," Wenner theorizes. "There's
something about it that makes you feel good and welcome him in. I mean, how
kooky can you get?"
Kooky or not, Wolfe rarely reveals much of himself, but I Am Charlotte
Simmons may be his most personal work yet. The title character, a brilliant but
poor girl from the mountains of North Carolina who becomes a social outcast at
college, spirals into a depression that Wolfe describes as much like his own.
"The thing that's so true is the only time she's at peace with herself is when
she's riding the bus," he says. "Because there's nothing she can do about her
troubles on the bus, there's no one to confront her." When Wolfe battled
depression for four months eight years ago, he says, "I was only happy in
transit." (Medication helped set him on his feet.) But Wolfe says he also
poured some of his other traits into Charlotte. "I shouldn't tell you this
about myself, but she's first of all an egotist of a sort you wouldn't
necessarily notice," he says. "The big question at the end of the book is, did
she really want to have a life of the mind or did she simply want to be a
star?" Adds the man who tried out as a pitcher with the then-New York Giants in
1952: "The only thing that saved me from a very poor career as a professional
baseball player is the fact that I wasn't good enough."
He passed along both his athletic genes and his writerly ones. Ensconced in
Manhattan with his wife, Sheila, 61, a graphic design consultant for Harper's
magazine, Wolfe has a son, Tommy, 19, a sophomore member of Trinity College's
champion squash team, and a daughter, Alexandra, 24, a reporter for The Wall
Street Journal. Neither of them helped with the book, though, except to correct
some of his slang. If the drunken campus bedhopping he writes about may alarm
parents, Wolfe doesn't worry about his own kids. "Maybe I'm kidding myself," he
says, "but I really do trust them 100 percent."
They might think twice before according him the same privilege. While doing
his research, Wolfe was once forced to flee a frat party at the University of
Michigan at 3 a.m.: "All the lights came on and an officer of the fraternity
came rushing through saying, 'Everybody out! They're coming!' I suddenly had a
picture of a guy 70 years old running out to escape the law. I never did find
out what they were frightened about."
Writing about youth is bound to win Wolfe new fans, although some will be
buying the wrong books. At one sorority party, remembers another former UNC
student, Frances Hankins, 25, "this boy went up to him and started talking
about Look Homeward, Angel, thinking it was Thomas Wolfe"-- who did indeed
write that classic but died in 1938. More important is Wolfe's ability to
inspire. "The thing that I got out of Tom is to look into things and try to
find the truth," says Fleming, the former fraternity brother. "That's what gets
you excited about life."
By Kyle Smith
"I suddenly had a picture of a guy 70 years old running out to escape the
The Observer profile
America's foremost satirist is sallying forth once more to slay the
dragon of his nation's social schizophrenia and hypocrisies. Expect
the trumpets to blow, and the swords to be sharpened
Sunday October 31, 2004
New novels by Tom Wolfe are not merely published; rather, they arrive
in town like stretch limos at the heart of a traffic-stopping
motorcade, klaxons blaring, heralded by outriders on Harleys in
reflective shades, their embargoed content already the subject of
speculation, adulation and protest. The million-plus copies of his
latest, third, full-length work of fiction, I Am Charlotte Simmons,
will scream into print worldwide with just such a gridlocking fanfare
in a fortnight's time.
From the two clues to its concerns so far - chapters excerpted in
Rolling Stone magazine and Men's Journal - it appears to be business
as usual for America's satiriser-in-chief. Wolfe wants to locate his
nation's most pumped-up pulse at any given moment, and strap his
stylistic tourniquet on to feel its pressure. He works in decades.
Following his inspired journalistic chronicles of Sixties Acid Tests,
and his coining of Seventies Me Culture, his novels have attempted to
put their exclamatory imprimatur on successive eras. What Bonfire of
the Vanities did for the Eighties and Wall Street, A Man in Full
attempted for the corrupt corporate billionaires of the Nineties
I am Charlotte Simmons takes this zeitgeist-roadshow to the mythical
Dupont university in California, breeding ground for the masters of
the twenty-first century universe. Wolfe has never lost his hunger for
the new new thing. The dapper hack who hung out with California's
elite surfers to write The Pump House Gang, almost 40 years ago, still
at 73 wants to know exactly what fuels young America. Thus we will see
him inveigling his unmissable authorial presence into fraternity
houses and sorority parties to come back with the news from the front.
You could see this novel simply as the author fulfilling an old
promise. Wolfe spent nearly all of his twenties doing a doctorate in
American studies at Yale. At the time, academia did not seem to offer
enough of real life for him, and he took a job as a reporter in
Springfield, Massachusetts. Though he never really stopped doing
American studies, he told himself that one day he would go back to
college to work, but never has until now.
Wolfe's real subject has always been class, that great taboo of
egalitarian America, what he once called its statuspheres. His
interest is in elites, the glamour and sordidness and comedy of power.
This has been a lifelong obsession. At the age of nine he embarked on
a biography of Napoleon and a life of Mozart written as a comic strip.
'The reason I liked them was because they were - like me - both
small,' he admitted, looking back.
I once asked Ken Kesey, hero of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, what
it was like to have Tom Wolfe write you into myth. 'What you have to
understand,' Kesey said, 'is that Tom Wolfe was never really writing
about me, his writing has always mostly been concerned with itself.'
Rarely can a writer's style have so enjoyed the red carpet as Wolfe's.
Each of his sentences looks like a seductive cheerleader for its
author. And he is not shy about revealing his motivation. 'If most
writers are honest with themselves, this is the difference they want
to make: before they were not noticed, now they are.'
Such statements are guaranteed to enrage the higher-minded of Wolfe's
peers. One of the things that will no doubt accompany his new novel is
another incendiary round in the literary firestorm that followed the
publication of the first two. No one else can wind up their fellow
Great American Novelists with such ease.
For John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, Wolfe's A Man in Full 'was
not even literature in a modest aspirant form'. Norman Mailer,
meanwhile, in an even more comprehensive kicking, compared reading
Wolfe to being 'seduced by a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top it's
all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated'. (Mailer left the reader in
no doubt that he was among those gasping for breath.) John Irving was
more succinct, saying Wolfe simply 'could not fucking write'.
Wolfe responded to these attacks in kind by saying that his critics -
The Three Stooges he called them - were envious because they had
'wasted their careers by not engaging in the life around them'. He
pointed also to an initial American print run of 1.2 million copies
for A Man in Full, a figure they could dream of (and just stopped
short of mentioning his $7.5m advance).
One of the things Wolfe believes annoys his critics most is that he
has never wanted to be one of them. Despite a lavish uptown apartment
in Manhattan and his summers in the Hamptons, and his wife, a Jewish
New Yorker, who was once art director of Harper's magazine, Wolfe
still prides himself on being an outsider in what he calls
His father was an agronomist in the Shenandoah mountains. His
grandfather was a Confederate officer in the Civil War. Wolfe never
wanted to lose any of his southernness. He made sure he would not be
seduced by literary New York early on in his career in an essay
viciously satirising its bible, William Shawn's New Yorker magazine,
as a home for the living dead. His famous white suit has been one
shorthand way of asserting this southern separateness. He uses his
uniform as a goad, and it works.
When Wolfe's first book came out, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake
Streamline Baby, this cultural Mason-Dixon line was already beginning
to be drawn. Writing in the New York Review of Books the eminent
conservative critic Dwight Macdonald derided Wolfe's work as
'para-journalism'. The main charge the critic laid against Wolfe then,
in 1965, was that of transience. 'I don't think Wolfe will be read
with pleasure or at all years from now, and perhaps not even next
year... the subjects will prove of ephemeral interest and the style
will not wear well because its eccentricities, while novel, are
monotonous; those italics, dots, exclamation points, and expressions
like Santa Barranza!... they will not last.'
That they did last, that Wolfe's first-person style has been the
single most influential voice in all journalism since, had a lot to do
with the fact that he was among the first to realise that the clues to
modern culture were not necessarily to be found in its politics but in
its fashions, in its transience. In his subsequent fascination with
the surface of things, in his love-hate for celebrity and the products
of American dreams, the scourge of modern art has proved to have had
more in common than he would acknowledge with Andy Warhol, that other
dandy outsider in the big city.
Like Warhol, though a stylistic radical, Wolfe has always been very
much a conservative by temperament. 'You never realise how much of
your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes,' he says. As
a boy in Richmond, Virginia, he would kneel by his bedside each night,
close his eyes, place his hands together and solemnly thank the Lord
for making him an American.
He has never forgotten that. While most liberal readers might have
seen Bonfire of the Vanities as a vicious satire on the excesses of
the Wall Street bull markets, to Wolfe himself it seems the comedy was
more complicated. 'My original idea was to say, "Look at these people!
Look at the way they live! Look at what they do! Isn't it just
amazing!"' He could have savage fun observing the greed unleashed by
Reaganomics, the great haemorrhaging of cash, but he still believed
Reagan to be 'one of our greatest Presidents ever'.
Wolfe squares that contradiction by being kind of American right
winger who enjoys the priapic power of capitalism, and who prefers to
laugh at effects than to examine causes. His writing borrows the
energy of the individuals shaped by the extremes of those forces (it
is no coincidence that his most telling and pyrotechnic book, The
Right Stuff, was about the astronauts at Nasa, vicariously
By the time he set about to writing novels, this desire to incorporate
all of America's energy in his books became overwhelming. In 1995,
almost eight years into his work on A Man in Full, he described how
every day he watched the events which his book wanted to include
overtaking him. As he did not use a computer, each rewrite meant
retyping everything. He looked a little like a character in a very
American fable, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of his own
The effort of this very nearly did for him. In 1996 Wolfe had a heart
attack at the gym and a quintuple by-pass, brought on, he believes, by
the hubris of staring at a blank page each day and trying to make it
reflect America. One of the effects of this brush with death, Wolfe
said, was to break the thread he had always felt to his youth. It made
him feel vulnerable, pervious, but he responded not with doubt but
with redoubled ambition. And for this alone, as even Norman Mailer has
conceded, 'one has to applaud his moxie'.
As a result, the style that once looked like a wonderful cocksure show
of plumage these days reads more like a rage against the dying of the
light. Like Anthony Burgess, pressed into frantic action by a
realisation of mortality, Wolfe, eight years on from heart surgery,
seems only to want to go faster. The 750 pages of A Man in Full will
thus be followed by the 680 pages of I am Charlotte Simmons.
If his preview chapters about college jocks are anything to go by, his
writing has rarely been more charged, more Wolfeian. Like the
musculature of the basketball stars it describes, it is 'steroidal,
ripped', all the time showboating with similes, hotdogging with
vernacular, slam-dunking exclamations. If sentences could be on
something then Wolfe's would never have been out of the mandatory
doping lab. There is, however, no Viagra for prose. So you marvel that
he is still keeping it up.
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe
DoB: 2 March 1931
Education: Washington and Lee University; Yale University (PhD, 1957)
Publications: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby; The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; The Right Stuff; Bonfire of the Vanities;
A Man in Full ...
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