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Big Man on Campus

That older guy at the kegger may have been Tom Wolfe researching his new novel.


Visit with the native Richmonder in this setting, here in the city he painted as a concrete jungle in his 1987 blockbuster "Bonfire of the Vanities," 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 "I Am Charlotte Simmons," a 700-page novel released Nov. 9, reads like every father's worst nightmare. Set at fictional DuPont University, it reaches 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: the drinking and the partying, video-game playing, test cheating, athlete worshipping and wanton coupling. Even Wolfe — who has traveled with Ken Kesey, hung out with Black Panthers and made millions by telling us what the madding crowd is doing — acknowledges America's youth may have slipped a little.

"I'm glad I didn't know this before my kids went off to college," Wolfe says.

It's an odd statement for America's pre-eminent clocker of the zeitgeist, especially as the dust settles from the most contentious election in its history. As if we needed a reminder of how pre-9/11 seem such concerns over life on college campuses, one need only look out the window. The view from Wolfe's library stretches downtown over Central Park, across midtown and all the way to the former site of the World Trade Center.

Has he mistimed his target? 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 Virginian. "[9/11] is supposedly changing everything. But 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 Sept. 11, but if you believe Wolfe's portrait in "I Am Charlotte Simmons," college students didn't pause too long to ponder the answers. Via his trademark interior monologues, Wolfe posits that kids are ignorant because they have one thing on their minds: sex.

The titular heroine is an overachieving na‹f from rural North Carolina repulsed by the vulgarity of DuPont's social scene. We follow Charlotte from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Pennsylvania and DuPont, where a basketball player, a frat boy and a nerdy editor of the campus newspaper vie for her virginity. Critics have already pointed out that Wolfe's decision to write a female lead might be a response to those who carped, among other things, that he could not make a woman come alive on the page. Wolfe naturally disagrees.

"I finally decided on Charlotte because her simple naiveté is a good way to introduce the reader to this campus life," Wolfe says. "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 narrative reads like a dramatization of the themes in Wolfe's "Hooking Up," a essay from the year 2000 in which he noted that "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. Meanwhile, fraternity brothers engage in stop-watched contests to see how quickly they can bed "fresh meat." Seven minutes is the time to beat.

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 during four years, spending several 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 in the morning, standing in the corner of fraternity house basements 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 "the f-word patois" -- in which the expletive is used as a noun, verb and adjective -- that he could speak it himself.

Even if he could talk the talk, it's hard to imagine the 73-year-old Wolfe blending in with the crowd. But that's never been his strategy. Wolfe began wearing the white suit in 1962, and continued because the garb provided a helpful barrier between himself and his subjects.

"It made me a man from Mars," Wolfe says, "the man who didn't know anything and was eager to know. Incidentally, all during these trips to colleges I didn't wear the suit. I'd wear navy blazers, white flannels, shoes like this." Wolfe points at his two-tone shoes as if they magically appeared on his feet. "They had no idea who I was. ..... They'd tend to look at me and think, well, he's too old to be Drug Enforcement Administration. So they figured I was harmless. People just can't stay wary so long."

A novel by Wolfe has become a 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. The sales of "Bonfire of the Vanities" thrust Wolfe to the top of the heap of America's social novelists. And the fact that "A Man in Full" was a finalist for the National Book Award opened the door for Wolfe's more doctrinaire literary critics. Reviewing the book in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote that it was "entertainment, not literature."

The scrimmage over "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is underway. 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." For The New York Times Magazine, Charles McGrath produced a love letter of a profile that compared Wolfe to other American masters who graduated from the newsroom to the novel: John O'Hara and Stephen Crane.

Wolfe has been known to retaliate against his critics in print — he once wrote an essay about Updike, John Irving and Norman Mailer called "The Three Stooges." He seems to have anticipated that "I Am Charlotte Simmons" would be greeted with a certain savagery, and he has an essay in progress that may serve as a response.

"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, 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." S

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