Bonfire of the sexuality

Have American youths slipped a bit? Tom Wolfe’s new novel—about hyper-sexed teens hitting college age—suggests it is so.

Sitting cross-legged on a plush gold couch in the library of his Upper East Side apartment and wearing his trademark white suit, navy tie and spotless two-tone spats, Tom Wolfe is about as far from a college keg party as one can be in the United States. On the table before him stands a small statuette of Chairman Mao. The walls around us support row after row of books on Flemish masters, folios of modern painters, and portraits of Wolfe’s daughter in full equestrian gear. Shortly after the writer makes his entrance, a smiling housekeeper follows with two glasses of water and quickly vanishes. Over the next 90 minutes, here in the city Wolfe painted as a concrete jungle in his 1987 blockbuster, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the surface of these glasses remains calm, still and unbroken.

Visit with Wolfe in this setting, and it becomes easy to understand why life on American university campuses was a distant reality for him. And a shocking one, too. Indeed, his 700-page new novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, reads like every father’s worst nightmare. Set at fictional DuPont University, it reaches way down into America’s deep-fried soul and returns with an inflammatory portrait of the pornographic hollowness of that $120,000 investment otherwise known as college: all the drinking and partying, video-game playing, test cheating, wanton screwing and athlete worshipping. Even Wolfe, who has traveled with Ken Kesey, attended NASCAR races, hung out with Black Panthers and made millions by telling us what the madding crowd is doing, acknowledges America’s youths may have slipped a little: “I’m glad I didn’t know this before my kids went off to college,” he says with an uneasy smile.

It’s an odd statement for America’s preeminent clocker of the zeitgeist to make, especially at this moment in the nation’s history. As if we needed a reminder of how, well, pre-9/11 such concerns over life on college campuses seem, one need only look out the window. The view out of Wolfe’s library stretches downtown over Central Park, across midtown and all the way to the former site of the World Trade Center.

I ask him whether he may have mistimed his target—if, perhaps, the zeitgeist passed him by this time. “I did pause and say, ‘You know, wait a minute,’” says Wolfe with the languid cadence of a born Southerner. “This is supposedly changing everything. But look at New York today! Real estate is out of control. … Besides, I found on campuses the reaction to 9/11 was zero. For most kids, it was just something that happened on TV.”

Why do they hate us? Who are they? Osama bin who?

These are the questions Americans asked after September 11, and if you believe Wolfe’s portrait in I am Charlotte Simmons, even American college students didn’t pause too long to ponder the answers. Using his trademark interior monologues, Wolfe reveals that the young-uns are ignorant and have remained so because they have one thing on their minds: sex.

The heroine of the book’s title is an overachieving naif from rural North Carolina who comes to DuPont on a scholarship and is overwhelmed by its lubricious social scene. One by one, we meet the coterie of her suitors: JoJo Johanssen, a 6-foot-10 college senior in the process of losing his starting spot on the basketball team; Hoyt Thorpe, a formerly wealthy WASP from Connecticut who scales the hierarchy of the campus’ fraternity world; and finally, Adam Gellen, a nerdy tutor and campus newspaper reporter who gets caught forging a paper for Johanssen.

Drawing on Wolfe’s singular powers of observation, the novel follows Charlotte’s journey through this social galaxy, from innocence to experience in just six months. As with its predecessors, the novel powers forward on hot air gusts of Wolfe’s set pieces. In one scene, he puts readers smack in the middle of a Big 10 college basketball game; another virtuoso scene involves Charlotte’s rather traumatic loss of her virginity.

Critics already have pointed out that Wolfe’s decision to cast a female in the lead might be a response to those who carped that, among other things, Wolfe could not make a woman come alive on the page. Wolfe disagrees: “I finally decided on Charlotte because her simple naiveté is a good way to introduce the reader to this campus life that the reader doesn’t know about, so every revelation to Charlotte Simmons is supposed to be a revelation to the reader. Also, from what I had seen, the changes in terms of sexuality are much harder on a woman than a man.”

Tom Wolfe as a feminist? Indeed, the action that follows reads like a literary dramatization of the themes and observations contained in Wolfe’s essay, Hooking Up, in which he noted that by the year 2000, “sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty.” Life at DuPont shows what happens when these hyper-sexed teens reach college age. Within a day of her arrival, Charlotte is “sexiled” from her room when her roommate brings a young man home for sex; meanwhile, fraternity brothers engage in stop-watched contests to see how quickly they can bed “fresh meat.” Seven minutes is the time to beat in I am Charlotte Simmons.

All this could be written off as melodrama were Wolfe not so thorough about his research. To prepare for I am Charlotte Simmons, he visited more than a dozen college campuses over four years, spending a few weeks at Stanford, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina, all of which boast powerhouse sports programs. He talked to students and attended classes, and, just a few years after having quintuple bypass surgery, stayed out until 4 or 5 a.m., standing in the corner of fraternity-house basement parties with ears pricked. No notepads. Although he never observed “sexual congress,” as he puts it, Wolfe did see plenty of dirty dancing and became so fluent in what he called “the fuck patois” —in which the expletive is used as a noun, verb and adjective—that he could speak it himself.

A novel by Wolfe has become a kind of once-a-decade event in American publishing and is greeted with the kind of polarized fanfare characteristic of an industry fighting over fewer and fewer spoils. If the sales of The Bonfire of the Vanities thrust Wolfe to the top of the heap of America’s social novelists, A Man in Full, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, gave Wolfe’s critics an open door to complain about him being treated as a literary novelist. Reviewing the book in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote that the book was “entertainment, not literature.”

The food fight over I am Charlotte Simmons already has begun. Writing in The New York Sun, Adam Kirsch argued that Wolfe “has never been able to discover the deeper, stranger, more elusive truths that fiction can bring.” In The New York Times, Charles McGrath responded with a love letter of a profile that compared Wolfe to other graduates from the newsroom to the novel: John O’Hara and Stephen Crane.

If Wolfe’s response in print is to go after his critics (he once wrote an essay calling John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer “the Three Stooges”), away from his typewriter, he takes the high road. Although pictures tend to portray Wolfe sneering down his nose at the camera, in person he is strikingly soft-spoken, almost courtly. He pauses to close a blind when the sunlight becomes too bright, and he repeats the expletives he uses so frequently in the book with a flinch and a wince. Throughout our conversation, his eyes remain kindly and attentive. At one point, he pauses to check his schedule, and even the reading glasses he dons to read small print are white. The word “costume” comes to mind.

Wolfe seems to have known I am Charlotte Simmons would be greeted with a certain savagery, and he’s already begun his new essay, his response perhaps. “I’ve begun working on a writer’s Hippocratic Oath,” Wolfe says. “The first line of the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath is ‘First, do no harm.’ And I think for the writers, it would be ‘First, entertain.’ ‘Entertain’ is a very simple word. I looked it up in the dictionary. Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly. And any writing—I don’t care if it’s poetry or what—should first entertain. It’s a very recent thing that there’s a premium put on making writing so difficult that only a charming aristocracy is capable of understanding it.”

And here we arrive at a sore point. Two weeks prior to the book’s publication, the National Book Award, once America’s premiere literary award and still the only prize judged entirely by writers, announced its finalists. Wolfe was not among them. To pour salt on the wound, Stewart O’Nan, one of the five judges, went on record in The New Yorker saying, “Ay-yi-yi, John Irving was right: the guy’s not a novelist.”

In a way, Wolfe might agree with O’Nan. He is not a novelist by contemporary standards. After all, while master-of-fine-arts programs tell students to write what they know, Wolfe does the exact opposite. He chooses a subject, heads out into the field, performs his research and then begins writing a story. He also has hitched his wagon to the zeitgeist, a force that has traveled further and further down-market in the four decades since Wolfe began publishing books. With I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe has traveled with America to what may indeed be its nadir. He figures that, were some of his predecessors alive today, they’d be along for the ride, too. “I’ve always said that Edgar Allan Poe would be writing jingles for the radio if he were alive today,” Wolfe says, and then he gives a weary chuckle.