Maidenhead Revisited

Why has Tom Wolfe written a 676-page novel about a college girl's virginity?

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Here they come spinning out of the turn: down there on hands and knees squirms Beverly, daughter of a Boston insurance CEO, crawling amid her dorm-room collection of "surge-protector strips and knuckle sockets in midair, her littered CD cases, uncapped skin-care tubes, spilled contact lens packets, the PC, the TV, the CD, DVD, DSL, VCR, MP4"--barking, tearfully, in the midnight air, "I want lacrosse players! Why do they only talk to me when they're drunk?"

A few doors down is Jojo Johanssen, blond flattopped basketball stud, who hawks a loogie on the "Lumenex-lit," embossed floor of the basketball court, insisting that a student jockstrap-picker-upper sop the oyster up.

Is there a hidden reason why this man always wears white?
Mark Seliger
Is there a hidden reason why this man always wears white?

In the adjoining suite sits Adam Gellin, newspaper reporter, pizza-delivery boy, and writer of term papers for know-nothing jocks--a dickless doof in a Members Only jacket with ice-cold vengeance on his mind.

And in the sunlit center of all these lost souls sits Charlotte Simmons, God's gift to Sparta, North Carolina, honors student, dirt-poor bootstrap-puller, and possessor of a hymen as inviolate as the day is long.

As the author of our book is a 74-year-old white gentleman from the Old South, which of these fictional creations do you think will absorb his rapt, even obsessive, maybe fetishistic focus?

In his sublime 1989 essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," Tom Wolfe shouted at America's fictionists a call to arms. Not so many novels about depressive adultery in the student housing after creative-writing seminar, please! Let us grasp the width and breadth, the folly and vainglory, the half-mile-high salad bar of the grotesque that is contemporary America! "A battalion, a brigade of Zolas" is what we need, Wolfe evangelized, then put on his dress-white uniform, screwed on his bayonet, and went screaming into the hills.

The result was, for my money, the strongest of recent American novels, A Man in Full (1998): a vast comic panopticon of late-boom-era America in which Wolfe created a moral tension almost unknown in contemporary letters. Running its hands over the contours of eternal verities as it gets every brand-name-of-the-nanosecond down cold, A Man in Full reinvented psychological naturalism with world-historic scope.

Then he went back to college. I understand this evasive maneuver. Wolfe had spent years, decades really, in the salt mines with rich old Establishment types like himself--the Wall Street swashbucklers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and the new-money mountebanks of A Man in Full. Keeping up to date with the kids, particular those booty-shaking, lip-glossing, SUV-low-riding Gen-Y kids who outnumber my paltry Gen X by a ratio of 6 to 1: That's where a hard-charging accountant of our national spirit belongs. And that expenditure of shoe leather is what brought this long-ago New York newspaperman the 676 pages of I Am Charlotte Simmons.

"Every novelist must have a theory, whether it's right or wrong," Wolfe has said, and his theory involves the power of status. Human beings seek to ascertain their place in the pecking order and then ascend. As Wolfe knows full well, this is a rather plain box to contain his greatest gift: a reportorial nose for in-the-moment details. No American writer today is so skillful at the breath-catching set piece as Wolfe. His big extended scenes are like a Teresa Stratas aria or a Brian DePalma long take.

Here, Wolfe stages several of these glorious rumbles. They are always comic glissandos on the theme of "Quién es mas macho?" (even when the characters are female). Maybe the best involves our pizza-slinging nerd staring down a Kobe-like superstar who tips him 70 cents on a $50 order. Wolfe's slow-mo rendering of this honky smackdown has the cringe-inducing slapstick of a classic Chuck Jones cartoon.

The moldiest, if also the most punctiliously arranged, of these big numbers are the extended dance mixes during which our heroine, Charlotte Simmons, inches closer and closer to losing her maidenhead. Moldiest, maybe, because the fate of Charlotte's made-up purity finally holds as little emotional power for her creator as it does for us.

In the tradition of Henry Fielding's Shamela and the Marquis de Sade's Justine, Wolfe has fashioned his portrait of millennial youth as a tongue-in-cheek parody of a girl's coming-of-age/Virtue Imperiled novel. But where Fielding and Sade quietly smack their chops over the distress of their trapped lambs, Wolfe has other aims in mind. It must finally be accepted that Tom Wolfe is, despite his sharp eye for tricked-out auto gear and high-end stereos, female anatomy and sartorial display, architectural styles and fine-dining choices, a conservative moralist with a familiar saw to impart.

Like many Americans, Wolfe views the status-obsessed snobs who torment Charlotte Simmons not as products of pecking-order-obsessed capitalism, but as preening liberal phonies. Somehow Wolfe has crammed all the horrors of contemporary college life into one gory slop bucket. The living dead who work in the food court and the sneering, chastising PC police; the Roofie-plunking jocks committing date rape and the lazy, complacent professors; the sexually hypertrophic teens with belly chains and Naomi Wolf--all these types dance their decadent dance around a cauldron filled with the blood of nice Southern virgin girls.

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