In Sheepish Clothing

The Argument

Tom Wolfe's cringe-inducing new novel is unworthy of him, and his readers deserve better, too.

November 14, 2004|By Helene Stapinski | Helene Stapinski,Special to the Sun

Like Charlotte Simmons, the flawed young heroine of Tom Wolfe's new novel, I arrived at college a straight A student, socially inferior to the sorority girls around me, and in search of my identity. It was in a journalism class where I began to define the person I would become. In that class, the teacher assigned us an anthology entitled The New Journalism. The collection was edited by Tom Wolfe.

Living and breathing in this book were Truman Capote, Joan Didion and, of course, Wolfe himself. Amid its stories were long-winded essays by Wolfe on the superiority of the New Journalism to the Novel. Our class studied excerpts from Capote's In Cold Blood and Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. We devoured those books and others like them, and based our careers -- our lives, even -- on them. They became our bibles: their writers, our heroes.

Wolfe was fond of writing about heroes. There was Ken Kesey from Acid Test and the astronauts from The Right Stuff. But Wolfe was a hero to writers of "literary nonfiction" -- as it came to be known. This was the man who said it was all right not to write a novel, that nonfiction could be just as good as, if not better than, the novel. This was the man who had coined the phrases, "radical chic," "the Me Decade," and "good ol' boy." Wolfe was the wise man with his finger on the pulse of American life.

So it was with great confusion that nonfiction devotees cracked open Wolfe's first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Why was he writing a novel? Why was he abandoning the nonfiction genre? Because, he said, social realism was missing from the contemporary novel and that it was his job -- and ours -- to bring it back.

Though Bonfire was filled with cartoonish characters, they were cartoons that actually roamed New York. There was the Al Sharpton caricature, and the Masters of the Universe, and those Wall Streeters we hated in the 1980s. Wolfe captured the white man's fear of missing his exit on the Bruckner Expressway and landing in the alien world of the Bronx.

Through it all, Wolfe had remained the dedicated reporter with a sharp eye for detail and dialogue. In the end, he had written the quintessential New York novel of the '80s. So what if he insisted on wearing that awful white suit all the time? He was still our hero. His foray into fiction was simply his way of showing that he, too, could write the American novel. Soon he would return to the arena of nonfiction where we loved him first and best.

But then came A Man in Full, another cartoonish satire with none of the immediacy of Bonfire, with far fewer laughs, and with no witty entries into the lexicon. Substituting the part of the Master of the Universe was a racist real estate developer from Atlanta. The American racial divide was again at the center of Wolfe's canvas -- but the subject was, by then, being painted better by other, younger writers.

There was Richard Price, who gave us Clockers, a reportorial wonder in the guise of fiction. And while Wolfe was busy writing Man in Full, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was doing the footwork for Random Family, a novel-like work of nonfiction about the working poor of the Bronx, which took what Wolfe had taught about living with your subject and raised the ante. In the past decade, whole presses devoted to African-American writers had risen up, rendering Wolfe's rap and hip-hop literary constructions not only unnecessary, but embarrassing.

And now, he brings us I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 676 pages, $28.95) -- a novel about contemporary college life. Reading it is like watching your father trying to break dance: cringe-inducing and excruciating for anyone who once admired Wolfe.

In this new work, Wolfe sloppily relates the story of Charlotte Simmons, the scared little valedictorian from the Blue Ridge Mountains who arrives at Pennsylvania's fictional Dupont University with barely anything more than unfashionable jeans and her virginity. But the girl has a brain, a superior brain, and is headed for a career in neuroscience. Over time, Charlotte will trade her brilliance for a couple of cocktails and a romp with a popular frat boy.

Charlotte Simmons, who at first seems to be Wolfe's heroine, becomes nothing more than the linchpin joining three male characters who dominate her life but barely hold together Wolfe's feeble plot. These characters -- that frat boy, a jock and a journalist -- are typical Wolfean caricatures, but in prototypical, larval form.

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