Imagine, for a moment, a clown - painted smile, bulbous nose, hula-hoop-wide pants, and all the other adornments-sits down before a caricaturist to have his likeness drawn, perhaps at a bar mitzvah or, maybe, a wedding. The caricaturist uncaps his black sharpie and scribbles a portrait, enlarging certain features to make them more prominent while downsizing others. But can you make a clown more clownish? Will a smudge more paint on the cheeks or a bigger, redder nose accentuate his innate buffoonery? This is what I wondered as I prepared to read Wolfe's new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, a 676 page satire of the American undergraduate experience. How do you satirize the ridiculous? How do you hyperbolize the outrageous? How do you scandalize what is already scandalous? If Wolfe had any chance of succeeding with his new novel, these were his challenges to meet.
We are first introduced to Charlotte Simmons when she is a smart girl living in Sparta, North Carolina, an isolated town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sparta is a dull place and Simmons is its one sparkler, bound for the prestigious Dupont University, a college on par with Duke, Stanford, and Princeton. She is also uptight, sheltered, puritanical, and pretty much unlikable, levying judgments on her peers like a preacher from a pulpit. In one characteristic moment, Charlotte is "appalled" after using Dupont's coed bathroom in the company of two drunk boys. "The vulgarity," she observes, "the rudeness, the impudence, the virtual nudity -and drinking-barely two hours after the resident assistant Ashley's assurances there would be no alcohol in this building, much less public drunkenness." Charlotte's pretensions are so overwhelming that even when she is treated badly by her fellow undergrads, extending her sympathy is an act of charity rather than goodwill. Her misery is a tithe box that has landed in lap of the reader.
Despite all her prudish self-righteousness (or maybe because of it), Charlotte is pursued by three Dupont men. Joseph J. Johanssen, known as Jojo, is the forward on Dupont's championship caliber basketball team. Jojo undergoes a transformation after meeting Charlotte in French class and decides to devote himself to his schoolwork, which, of course, includes Charlotte, the only girl who ever scolded him for acting so winningly like a dimwit. Then there is Adam Gellin, a pizza delivery boy, a reporter for the student newspaper, and a Rhodes Scholar hopeful. Oh-don't tell anyone!-he is also a virgin, which causes him a great deal of worry. Finally, Hoyt Thorpe is a frat boy and an emerging legend on campus for beating up the bodyguard of a Presidential hopeful who was enjoying a blowjob when Hoyt stumbled drunkenly upon him on the quad. Charlotte is on the yellow brick road with these three bachelors, Jojo in search of a brain, Adam in search of body, and Hoyt in search of "fresh meat" having already slept with all the flying monkeys and munchkins that attend Dupont. Like Dorthy, our lonely and miserable frosh is about three heel-clicks away from escaping to home.
Tom Wolfe shuffles these big personalities about strategically like accumulating armies in a game of Risk. His characters are props for propelling the book's narrative and commentary, so even if you could care about a priss like Charlotte, you'd be wise not to: you'd be falling in love with a mortal subject to the whims and ways of a god with something to prove. And that is just fine. We read Wolfe precisely because he illuminates the world at the expense of his characters. But with I Am Charlotte Simmons, the evoked world of the novel is exactly what makes it a failure. In order to highlight college's excesses, Wolfe pulls and stretches at whatever is in his grasp. But everyone already knows the extremes of college life. We've experienced them ourselves, or at least seen the adverts for topless coeds on TV and watched the movies. As a result, Wolfe doesn't so much draw the excesses out as harden them. He reinforces all the familiar stereotypes, adding mortar to the foundation of funny films and MTV spring breaks.