Measure Tom Wolfe this way: At 74, an age where opportunistic reviewers can make snide remarks about his physical decline, America's most accomplished chronicler of the social scene plunges into foreign and hostile territory: the underbelly of a big-time college campus.
There's no shame in saying it: Wolfe is an American treasure. Four times, he has tried to give identity and perspective to American decades, and his comprehensive success has lapped all competition. Every time, he has done it with exhaustive reporting and a literary style that still amazes, even 30 years after what he named the "Me Decade." "Wolfe does things with words," one reviewer wrote recently, "-- exhilarating, intoxicating, impossible things -- that no other writer can do."
Anyone familiar with Wolfe can imagine and admire the mischievous energy he brings to his newest project. Is there a doubt someone in his eighth decade can understand what goes on around and inside the heads of the overly affluent, often-spoiled, but still-worth-saving college students? Wolfe takes up the challenge in his characteristically audacious way.
The fact his book depends so much on the extended and ultra-distinctive voices of maybe 10 characters makes his objective even bolder. Can Wolfe catch the vernacular and argots of today's college students, even with his own two kids as informal quality control? The book's credibility hangs on the answer. Like so much of what came before it, his latest is an in-your-face literary statement.
Obviously, that Tom Wolfe spirit of literary courage and defiance of comfortable boundaries burns strong and true.
Wolfe even admits he was motivated by a common knock against his writing.
"You don't think I can do female characters?" he told an interviewer, invoking a common complaint, "I'll show you a female character."
And what a character it is. "I am Charlotte Simmons" is the story of a brilliant, sparkling but naive high school graduate from the Blue Ridge Mountains town of Sparta. Just starting to understand her intellectual prowess and budding sensual appeal, Charlotte is the moral compass of the novel. Her journey from starry-eyed freshman (Charlotte starts out reading "Ethan Frome") looking for college's "life of the mind" to raw reality makes Wolfe's newest book a coming-of-age novel. It just happens to be set in an "Animal House/American Pie" value system. The fact Charlotte eventually finds that inspiring and empowering intellectual richness she imagines amid the madness elevates "I am Charlotte Simmons" above a knee-jerk cynical rant about the debauchery of new millennium higher education.
Wolfe's two previous pillars of fiction, "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full," were praised for their literary pyrotechnics. He can twist and turn floods of words into an image that changes the way his readers look at the world. What Wolfe fan could forget the pimp roll in "Bonfire," or the workout of Atlanta conglomerate king Charlie Croker's wife in "A Man in Full"?
Wolfe's extensive account of Charlotte Simmons and her peers' freshmen year includes a generous offering of these psychedelic-like slices of consciousness. They're wonderful, fresh, on-target and redefine the reader's universe. Pick one out. The next is better than the last.
"He looked for all the world like a 7-year-old who at the touch of a wand had become old, tall, bald on top and hairy everywhere else," Wolfe writes about Charlotte's English professor. "An ossified 7-year-old, a pair of eyeglasses with lenses thick as ice pushed up to the summit of his forehead."
His account of Charlotte's working-class parents' culture clash with her roommate's blue-blooded mother and father as they dine at the Sizzlin' Skillet is irresistible. It's a scene that has caught the admiration of even the critics who panned the book. When Wolfe made New Journalism popular in the 1960s and early '70s, it was his uncanny ability to observe social scenes in unique ways. He unveiled experimental techniques to drive the cerebral and visceral power of his material home. The techniques have endured, whether they apply to Wolfe's journalism of years ago or his more recent rich, Balzacian panoramic novels. They work as well now as ever.
Before anything else, "I am Charlotte Simmons" will be known for that coed dorm debauchery, the spontaneous and promiscuous "hooking up" of undergraduates, page upon page of scenes that will chill parents of all social-economic backgrounds. The raw language, the pressure to have sex without responsibility or attachment, the drinking bacchanals.
Obviously, Wolfe's action carries an exaggeration quotient. But Wolfe has stood by the core reality of his book. Wolfe traveled extensively to numerous college campuses, spending a month or more at several. He couldn't get over the impact coed dorms had on mainstream college life.
"At any given moment, there are several thousands of beds in buildings that male and females can walk into at any time," he told one interviewer. "I was shocked to hear the language of the girls. Now they talk just like the boys, who in turn talk like people in the army from the 1930s."
Wolfe's previous books have been criticized for lacking soul, heart. His characters were caricatures of people, his critics said. Wolfe's clearly addressed that concern in this one.
"I became very interested in Charlotte's fate," he said recently. "I don't think I've ever been so absorbed in a character in my life."
Nevertheless, the resolution to Charlotte's admirable search for meaning and value in this collegiate moral chaos is neither clear nor satisfying. Add that to the list of reasons why many critics have been harsh. The debate over the accuracy of Wolfe's depiction of campus life will rage, something that undoubtedly will feed Wolfe's love of a good literary fight.
"I am Charlotte Simmons" is not an easy book. It is not short. But as an answer to whether the crafty guy in the white suit still matters, on that there is no doubt.
I am Charlotte Simmons
By Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus Giroux, 678 pages, $28.95
Charles Anzalone is the editor of the News' First Sunday magazine.