December 11, 2004

Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons

I finally started the new novel about a freshwoman at a Duke-like university. I had some trepidation since the quality of Wolfe's writing fell off so drastically in the last 100 pages of A Man in Full after the masterful body of the book, presumably due to Wolfe's coronary bypass surgery and his subsequent depression. But Wolfe seems in fine form, not ascending the heights of his amazing "In the Breeding Barn" chapter in A Man in Full, but quite serviceable so far.

And his exultation over finding this great topic -- student life in a modern university -- that nobody important had touched is palpable. A dozen years ago when date rape was a hot topic, I did some research to write a debunking article, but found that naive little me was in over my head, so nothing came of it. One thing I discovered was that the girls most likely to be abused are freshmen living away from home for the first time who want to party with football and basketball players and the top fraternities, but who don't belong to a sorority. Sorority girls, in contrast, have sisters to look out for them when they get drunk and traditions of behavior that can protect them to some extent. Poor Charlotte Simmons, from a hillbilly village in the Blue Ridge mountains, appears to fit this model of a girl headed for trouble.

Also, having a teenage girl for the main character solves Wolfe's old problem that while his fascination with and knowledge of fashion and decorating is hugely important to his books, in the manly men he normally writes about, it always seems a little, ahem, gay. Back in the 1960s, Wolfe wrote some brilliant essays about young women, but in the 1970s he became obsessed with physical courage (e.g., The Right Stuff) and lost touch with his ability to write about women, leading to the rather underdeveloped female characters in his two novels. I haven't read enough to see if he's back in touch with his feminine side, but he seems to be off to a good start.

Here's John Derbyshire's NRO article on the book.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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