November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

I Am Charlotte Simmons

Current Status
In Season
Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
We gave it a D

Because he is Tom Wolfe…because I Am Charlotte Simmons is not only the title of his square new book but also the mantra of self-affirmation his teenage heroine clings to as she negotiates the treacherous path from smartest virgin in the North Carolina mountain boonies to stunned freshman at fictional Dupont University…because within the first 100 pages, students in Charlotte’s French lit class are reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and wasn’t it Flaubert who famously identified with his heroine by declaring, ”Emma Bovary, c’est moi,” which means ”I am Emma Bovary,” and surely there are no accidents in literature…because I am getting lost in a thicket of Wolfean ellipses — well, then, to use the master’s current favorite linguistic sound effect, bango!

It would be logical to speculate on the psychological connections between the refined 73-year-old author of this strikingly out-of-touch bildungsroman (college kids get drunk! They hook up!) and a bright, well-read, exceedingly pretty, and preposterously dainty fictional lass who is regularly shocked by every cussword she hears uttered by the more affluent boors who share the groves of academe with her.

Is the world all too much for Wolfe? Does he wish for a fainting couch or the stern comforts of Charlotte’s momma (who, in the way of a Dorothea Lange dust bowl model, ”should have been beautiful”), and for the purity of nice girls who may have heard of Cosmopolitan but ”had certainly never bought it”? He suggests it’s time to take gosh-darned modernity to the woodshed — all the hustle, the coarseness, the callousness, the dumbness, and especially the gloppy, garish, heartless, putrid sex and sexuality that’s everywhere these days, like garbage, feh! And yet — and yet — Wolfe cannot look away from the ”two-backed beasts herkyjerky humping bangbang-bang.” (He’s also partial to ”loamy loins.” I didn’t know those things were still being made.)

It’s difficult, when not depressing, to think what the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, invaluable chronicler of cosmopolitan American man at his vainest, sees in the tiny college mummies who occupy his new novel. If the dumb jock, the conniving son of privilege, and the nerdy, hairy Jewish intellectual who writes for the school newspaper (all of whom mess with Charlotte’s perfection at some point) are new discoveries in his research into the human comedy, then the author might benefit from a trip to the Animal House shelf at Blockbuster. If the stuck-up, rich roommate with the tendencies of a slut is a novelty, a dose of The O.C. is prescribed.

As ever — as we have loved him — Wolfe tears into selected set pieces with flashes of energy: the concept of one roommate being ”sexiled” by the mattress activities of the other, the vomitous ”hilarity” of a frat party, the class friction with which wealthy New Englanders join Charlotte’s hoot-and-hollerin’ parents for a meal at the local, lard-aceous Sizzlin’ Skillet when the roommates’ families meet. But far, far too much of the book is propped up by the author’s harrumphing-Humberty shock. And the defeated, implausible conclusion to the novel’s banal plot suggests that Charlotte herself doesn’t believe her unsubstantiated declaration of uniqueness.

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