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“What’s a motto?” asked the future Lion King Simba, to which Timon replied, “Nothing.” “Whatsa motto with you?” Charlotte Simmons, the ingenue of Tom Wolfe’s new novel, by rights should have been a martyr to debauched university life. By sparing his protagonist from martyrdom, Wolfe in effect tells the reader, “Whatsa martyr with you?” We have “hakuna mattata” in place of the indicated conclusion. Rather than holding up the mirror of tragedy to his public, Wolfe ultimately gives us a smiley-face.
Wolfe’s collective biography of America’s astronauts (The Right Stuff, 1983) was the ultimate feel-good-about-America book. It made him a cultural icon among the sort of boosters who also think that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is a grand paean to freedom. He did not mention that German scientists once in Adolf Hitler’s service devised and built the rockets on which Wolfe’s tobacco-chewing pilots flew to glory. Wolfe believes that guts, goodwill, and a smattering of knowledge will always win the day. That is the red thread connecting The Right Stuff and Charlotte Simmons, namely the author’s assurance that within US culture as it is are to be found the solutions to the all problems that the United States confronts. Twenty years ago his account of the US space program was merely incomplete; today his portrait of American youth is incongruous.
As a journalist, Tom Wolfe knew better. The youth culture he describes mass-produces martyrs faster than the Emperor Nero. One out of six university students suffers from depression; two out of five college women suffer from anorexia or bulimia at some point, reported Psychology Today in December. This should be no surprise, given what Wolfe himself has reported.
“Only yesterday,” Wolfe wrote five years ago in Hooking Up, “boys and girls spoke of embracing and kissing (necking) as getting to first base. Second base was deep kissing, plus groping and fondling this and that. Third base was oral sex. Home plate was going all the way. That was yesterday. Here in the year 2000 we can forget about necking. Today’s girls and boys have never heard of anything that dainty. Today’s first base is deep kissing, now known as tonsil hockey, plus groping and fondling this and that. Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way. Home plate is learning each other’s names.” Apart from some binge drinking, these lines summarize two-thirds of the content of Charlotte Simmons.
Charlotte Simmons, a poor girl from the rural US South, wins a scholarship to a great university, and there loses her religion, her sobriety, and her virginity. Better writers than Wolfe have been killing off the likes of Charlotte for centuries. Innocent country folk lured into the fleshpots of Babylon usually do not survive their debauches in the genre of which Wolfe’s book is an evident knock-off. Some reviewers have compared Charlotte to Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempre, who takes poison at the conclusion A Harlot High And Low. Wolfe’s actual model, I suspect, was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which The Savage, a remnant of 20th-century culture, stumbles into a hedonistic dystopia of the future and eventually hangs himself.
Given the precedents, one would expect to see Charlotte on a slab at the book’s conclusion. New York Times columnist David Brooks titled his November 24 review “Moral suicide a la Wolfe” – but the trouble is that there is no suicide. Here is a brief plot summary, intended to spare the public the bother of reading it. Young Charlotte arrives at fictional DuPont University (apparently modeled after Duke). She encounters a young Jewish intellectual, Adam Gellin, who has plagiarized an essay for Jojo Johanssen, a basketball star. She also is pursued by a handsome poseur named Hoyt Thorpe, to whom she loses her virginity. Thorpe has witnessed a sexual act between the governor of California and a female student, and accepted a bribe in the form of employment at a Wall Street firm to keep silent.
Charlotte inspires Jojo to use his mind, and the athlete registers for a course in Socrates in which he is proud to obtain a C+. (That, for Wolfe, represents redemption by the intellect.) Jojo nearly loses his position on the basketball team for the sin of engaging in actual academic work, but regains his position. Adam publishes an expose of the aforementioned sexual incident and becomes a hero to the left-wing professors at the university, who choose not to pursue the plagiarism charge. Hoyt Thorpe is exposed as a cheat and fraud, but not before deflowering Charlotte. Charlotte rejects Adam, who loves her, and chooses Jojo instead. Her intellect fails her, but she becomes a celebrity as a sports hero’s squeeze. “So the little country girl from the Lost Province had become quite a campus presence, of sorts, in a remarkably short time, a mere six months.”
The rest of the 697 pages are occupied with sex, drinking, and jejeune undergraduate discourse.
Another C+ student with an interest in philosophy is the president of the United States. The former flyer George W. Bush has a good deal of what Wolfe called “the right stuff,” a blend of goodwill, sportsmanship, optimism and horse sense. Like test pilot Chuck Yaeger, the man who broke the sound barrier, he represents the best type the United States produces. But Yaeger had the benefit of Werner von Braun and his team; Bush has Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice.
Apart from David Brooks, the neo-conservative monthly Commentary printed the most sympathetic notice of Charlotte Simmons I have seen. Reviewer Sam Schulman notes that the action of the novel centers on Charlotte’s search for a boyfriend, but nonetheless “it is a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel.” This is an astonishing statement, considering that ideas of any sort are mentioned only in passing amid the rivers of cervisial vomit and the quivering mounds of undergraduate flesh. The statement says a great deal about the neo-conservatives, however.
In the realm of culture, the neo-conservatives are passionately “middlebrow,” a term that has reentered the cultural vocabulary thanks to David Brooks’ advocacy. That is, they look for “healthy” elements of popular culture, from a time before American culture began to disintegrate. They like Jackson Pollack rather than Damien Hirst, Stravinsky rather than Stockhausen, Frank Sinatra rather than Ice Cube, and so forth. That is, they praise the older modernists who overthrew traditional culture, and eschew the post-modernists who want to eradicate whatever is left.
Wolfe comes close to their literary ideal. As a chronicler of popular culture, Tom Wolfe has been the bane of radical popular culture, and the bard of traditional popular culture. During the 1960 he ridiculed the counterculture (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Bonfire of the Vanities became the 1980s fable of Wall Street excess, and in 2000 Hooking Up reported on promiscuity among teenagers, as noted.
Charlotte’s triumph as an athlete’s love interest encapsulates what Wolfe wants to convey: that there exist strengths in US culture that will triumph over whatever adversity might present itself. In the American provinces, reverence for high-school sports takes second place only to religion, and first place during an important match. Athletes at US universities are not expected to do much academic work. Games are the principal drawing card for wealthy alumni, and universities compete for the best athletes the better to solicit contributions from them. In other words, Americans are overgrown children for whom the fantasy-world of basketball provides their strongest emotional tie to higher education. George W. Bush, it will be remembered, made his modest fortune buying the Texas Rangers baseball team. No worse mental preparation for the real world can be devised than team sports, which proceed from fixed rules.
It is a bit unfair to single out Tom Wolfe for the literary crime of wandering into a tragic genre and turning it into a sports story. American tragedy, I observed in the past, is an oxymoron, because America is the land of perpetual new beginnings (George W Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003). Americans simply do not brook tragic endings. They ignore the menacing omens of the first act, and pull up stakes during the second act, so that the third act never arrives. Trivial crimes masquerade as tragedy in US literature, for example the ambitious young man’s murder of his pregnant mistress in pursuit of a wealthy bride, or Jay Gatsby’s confusion of love with social status. Eugene O’Neill’s attempt to transplant the Oresteia into America’s tragedy of real life, the Civil War of 1861-65, became merely grotesque; his essay into domestic tragedy, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” actually has the structure of a situation comedy.
A people with no tragedy of its own never will understand the tragic destiny of other peoples. That is what makes America both so powerful and so prone to failure.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York, 2004. ISBN 0374281580, 676 pages, US$28.95.