The slight stuff Maverick satirist


FictionThere may well be someone, somewhere capable of explaining why it took Tom Wolfe, admittedly a writer of famously inflated prose, close on 700 pages to execute this dated travesty of a novel.

Could it be that the plot is so complex, so detailed? No, this poor little story is stretched as thin as tissue paper. Could it be that Charlotte Simmons is a complicated heroine of immense emotional and intellectual contradictions? No, she is merely yet another of Wolfe's ridiculous female characters in a gallery of silly caricatures. Could it be that his narrative is in fact a daring portrait of the US in crisis? No, it's not quite that either. Could it be that Wolfe found writing this book so relentlessly, inventively funny, that he, ever the indulged and self-indulgent entertainer, got carried away? Perhaps he did. But the problem is, it's just not funny.

Tom Wolfe, Southerner by birth, New Yorker by inclination, neatly side stepping his multiple intolerances in his dandy's spats, has lived long and well on the reputation earned in the 1960s and 1970s as a maverick satirist with a flair for reading the times.

Well, even if Wolfe's journalism of reportage always tended to read more like fiction, its outrageous poetic licence was kept afloat by the energy and the grotesque comedy.

As for his fiction début, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), for all the hype, it was never the Dickensian masterpiece Wolfe appeared to think it was. Still, it was funny and vividly caught the mood of the 1980s with its Me Generation self absorption. It was also satisfying to think that here was a satirical journalist specialising in the moment, who really hankered after the past and was drawn to the enduring achievement of the 19th century city novel.

Wolfe's manic tale of greedy Wall Street traders, masters of the universe and ultra thin social X-ray consorts, was big, loud, overblown but very funny. Even at its most grotesque, the comedy flourished through its visual, cartoon frenzy. And that's the key: Wolfe doesn't write novels, he produces morality play cartoons played out through flashy, sound effects prose. Appearances is his thesis. His characters are either surreally good looking or freakishly hideous. They don't speak; they yell, scream, cringe, explode and collapse - unhinged by their own hubris. Bonfire certainly had its moments, such as the difficulties of phoning your mistress while caught up in a pampered pooch's leash in a phonebox, but its successor, A Man In Full (1998), demonstrated what happens when a dying joke is repeated over and over and over and over again.

Far worse than the freewheeling prose was the gratuitous vulgarity. Where once he had made observations of subversion, now the detailed observations were far less astute, having settled into cheap shots. The trouble shooter, always a snob, had become complacent, convinced of a wit that had flown. The sheer crudeness of A Man In Full rendered the book, another lengthy yarn, difficult to stomach, never mind read.

This time, in I am Charlotte Simmons, his third excursion into fiction, Wolfe, in his customary role as self-appointed truth-teller, has directed all his lofty insightfulness on the easiest of targets - the US campus with its population of ruthless scholars invariably thin, puny and tough, pitted against pampered rich kids and those clunky, moronic giants, the jocks.

The college is the invented Dupont, a place based on the top five real-life US universities of which everyone has heard. To this grove of higher learning comes the lovely Charlotte, from Sparta, North Carolina, the child of God-fearing parents who have little schooling between them but they love their girl, a prodigy destined for greatness.

It has to be said that the most coherent set piece in the novel occurs at the beginning, when Charlotte's family innocently decide to eat with the rigidly middle class parents of the anorexic Beverly, a sex crazed idiot whose college life is devoted to the pursuit of boys - any boy.

Early on, Wolfe also indicates that central to this comedy is writing dialogue in conventional English and then phonetically translating into Southern speech. Rich versus poor; smart poor versus stupid rich, the contrasts are obvious, as are many things in this romp. Charlotte may wear uncool clothes but Wolfe gives her better legs than her peers. She may be shy, but she possesses an ego that repeatedly signals she should be revered and acknowledged.

Well, she may not be revered and she may not be all that acknowledged, but she is noticed. After all, in the sexual free-for-all which passes as campus life, Charlotte appears to be the only person who has arrived at college in possession of pyjamas.

She is naive and righteous: "She was no star here at Dupont, not so far. Nothing had altered her inexpressible conviction that she would be the most brilliant student in this famous university - but how was anyone to know about it, even if she was?"

Initially revolted by the sexual desperation of the other girls, she quickly acquires her own competitive, sexual desperation. But Charlotte's desperation is more calculating. In moments of deep personal crisis she usually makes sure her legs are seen to best advantage. She sets out to make sure she is wanted but also wants to preserve her mystique. Her sexual tactics are designed to offend. Most of the females don't like her, but then nor does Wolfe, whose method of watching over her is far closer to that of resentful voyeur than guardian angel.

Charlotte's descent from scholar to slut is predictable but slow enough to test the non-existent patience of campus swine, Hoyt Thorpe, of the Saint Ray fraternity. He's a guy with good looks and nothing else. Another contender for Charlotte is the ridiculous Jojo, a giant basketball player, white and stupid, in the otherwise all black college team. Just as Jojo's grasp on his team place is slipping, he, through, Charlotte, discovers a sense of pride in the location of an intellect.

In there competing with Hoyt and Jojo, for Charlotte's favour and/or body is little Adam, clever, cynical and mad about her. It is he to whom Charlotte confers the privilege of tending her in her well-deserved post-Hoyt humiliation, but she has no interest in supporting him when his universe appears set to explode.

Adam's mind throbs with large thoughts: "He tried to visualise how many of Dupont's 6,200 students were rutting away at it at this very moment, visualise in the sense of being able to see through walls and spot the two-backed beasts herkyjerky humping bangbangbang . . . up there, in that bedroom in Lapham - there, in that room in Carruthers - up there, on the floor of that empty seminar room . . ."

No one in this book speaks; what passes for dialogue is swear words, sexual innuendo, verbal abuse and cynical authorial asides. The students compete in seeing how many foul epithets they can cram into each sentence. Wolfe prides himself on having researched his slang and swear words. No he wasn't going to fall into the trap of using old-fashioned profanities. It is on this level that one should judge this trashy performance, inferior as it is to the average beach read. The language is so bad, a reviewer is hard pressed to quote without resorting to asterisks.

For all its vulgar aggression, I Am Charlotte Simmons is a sad, pathetic effort. Who cares about Charlotte? She barely does herself. Wolfe, a tired, old voice with nothing left to say, relies on cliched stereotypes, yet still expects to be heard. There is none of the grandeur and passion of Philip Roth. Where Roth's anger is profound, his love of America palpable; Wolfe's rage is petulant and self centred, more bad tempered squeak than mighty roar.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

I am Charlotte Simmons By Tom Wolfe Cape, 676pp. £20