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Wolfe fails at old college try

Famed author Tom Wolfe flunks test of college knowledge in his new book I am Charlotte Simmons.

In the acknowledgments at the start of his new out-of-touch novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 73-year-old Tom Wolfe thanks several universities across the nation for helping him gather information for his exposé on post-millennium college life. One school noticeably absent from his cross-country adventure, during which Wolfe spent time in frat houses and student centers from Stanford to Michigan to North Carolina, is Duke.

Yet the similarities between Duke and Wolfe’s fictitious Dupont University are rather hard to ignore as Wolfe’s innocent freshman, Charlotte Simmons, learns the horrors of college. After writing The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, the journalistic pioneer turned best-selling novelist headed back to campus life and, it seems, to Durham, where his daughter Alexandra graduated from Duke in 2002.

Before Charlotte even reaches the Gothic campus, Wolfe describes the most identifiable Duke aspect of Dupont: that “everybody’s just plain-long wild about basketball!”

One of the novel’s main characters is Jojo Johanssen, who bears a name and status strikingly similar to J.J. Redick as the lone white starter on the “godlike” basketball team. Head coach Buster Roth has a lucrative deal with Nike and an office that takes up the entire floor of one of the tallest buildings at Dupont, just as Mike Krzyzewski occupies the top level of the Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center. For the basketball players, Dupont knocked down a wall between two dorm rooms to increase living space, like the two-room triple in Duke’s Basset Dormitory. Of course, to see the team play, seats run at $30,000 a pop.

Additionally, the campus setup evokes an image of the Gothic Wonderland. Charlotte lives on Little Yard, the campus that houses the 1,600 first-year students. Little Yard is separated by a tunnel to the upperclassman Great Yard (read: East to West Campus), where the Chapel-like tower at the library dominates as highest point on campus. Dupont’s pride is its library reading room, with prominent windows and “ornate stone lobes and filigrees filled in with stained glass,” evoking an image of the Gothic Reading Room. Just off campus, a strip of stores and restaurants “on the edge of the slum” attracts students, not unlike Ninth Street.

Although there are many physical similarities to Duke, Wolfe writes of an unrealistic college atmosphere. A prospective college student well past his time for enrollment, Wolfe was in essence picking a school—not at which to spend four years, but instead to rip apart in 676 pages. He found more than a few elements from the Duke environment worthy to include in his work, setting the scene for a realistic college story, yet the characters’ ridiculous natures simply showcase Wolfe’s age.

Dupont merely consists of two distinct groups of students, rather than a wide-ranging student body. There are those at Dupont because they earned it—notably Charlotte and student journalist Adam Geller—and those enrolled at the top-five school because they are athletes or are wealthy, including the basketball team and the brothers of the misogynist Saint Ray fraternity.

While some students at top universities across the nation certainly fit into these two categories, the spectrum of any student body is not nearly as polarized as this. Wolfe does an injustice to college students by suggesting that they are either innocent and arrogantly intelligent—like Charlotte and Adam—or sex-obsessed and completely unacademic—like Hoyt Thorpe and his Saint Ray fraternity brothers.

There is a moment in the novel when Adam essentially debunks the notion that universities like Dupont—and Duke for that matter—can function as a “work hard, play hard” environment.

“This school is full of smart kids,” Adam tells Charlotte. “They’ve hosed the SATs and the APs and the GPAs like it’s their job. Then they come here and party and ‘network’ and make a ‘transition from adolescence to adulthood’ and all of that ridiculous bullshit.”

Even though she hails from the anachronistic Sparta, N.C., for a student who earned a 1600 on the SATs, Charlotte Simmons remains aggravatingly ignorant. Whether Dupont is really Duke, or one of the schools Wolfe actually acknowledges visiting for research, there is likely no college-age female in the country who can read the book and declare with confidence, “I am Charlotte Simmons.”

Instead, Charlotte is a figment of Wolfe’s imagination. She is not just from a small town of 900 people; she’s from another time period. Charlotte has the reactions to college life of a 73-year-old man, the innocent mind of a child and the overall character of someone from a far distant era.

From the novel’s beginning in Sparta, Charlotte realizes the changes college life will bring. She has never seen Dupont and only applied on the recommendation of a high school teacher. Yet she does not go into college with the open mind one would expect from a girl so willing to leave her comfort zone, and her hypocritical nature irritates rather than aligns Charlotte and the reader on her search for intellectualism.

As Charlotte begins to assimilate into the Dupont culture, she buys the requisite Diesel jeans—Wolfe thinks they singularly characterize the closets of America’s entire collegiate population—but continues to criticize the style of her roommate and other socially apt students. She knows no college terminology, like “dormcest” or “sexiled”—Wolfe proudly flaunts this vocabulary as representing his college re-education—and does not even seem to understand the terms as she learns of them.

Wolfe emphasizes Charlotte’s lack of cohesion with the Dupont culture, using excessive exclamation points for almost every new experience she comes across. At the same time, though, she quickly earns the interest of both Hoyt, the most prominent frat boy on campus, and Jojo, the highest-profile athlete. By the end of the book, just in time for March Madness, Charlotte is dating Jojo and sitting at center court to watch the Dupont basketball team take on the University of Connecticut.

The book ends before the final seconds of the game tick down, and we leave the innocent girl from Sparta in Wolfe’s Cinderella-meets-soap-opera world. Wolfe plays Fairy Godmother, dropping his precious Charlotte at the big game—just like Duke’s Final Four loss to UConn last season—but stranding her at his own imaginary college ball.


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