The Book Club

Tom Wolfe’s Complicity in the Culture of Machismo

Virginia! Ginny! G and T! I was hoping you’d bring up (Wahooo-Wah) our time together at UVA, where you were an undergrad, I a grad student, and both of us were in thrall to the great Richard Rorty. (Did you note the complete absence of the campus maitrepenseur in Wolfe’s supposed taxonomy? Wolfe must truly hate intellectuals. His one humanities professor here is a quivering under-mensch named Quat.) I started out saying I kinda liked this book, then proceeded to offer it up to the poleax, so let me revise and extend my remarks. First of all, all of us, hipster, doofus, hipster-doofus, we’re all going to converge on one personality type in the end, the incredulous fuddy-duddy for whom the young appear as savages. And so yes, Heff, I think this is a drag show, in which Wolfe dresses up as the improbably spotless Charlotte, the better to make his own censorious way through Gomorrah; and in doing so, he speaks for the Active Liver in all of us. Second, I agree, he gets something dismayingly right here. By presenting a vision so loveless and unchastened by adult perspective, I Am Charlotte Simmons brings you back, uncannily, to what it feels like to be young: overwhelmed, self-pitying, somehow both painfully anonymous and sticking out like a sore thumb. The question I still can’t puzzle out is: Are these genuine virtues, or only more flaws in what amounts to an egregious mistake of a novel? Or, put another way: Isn’t it Wolfe here who is being shallow?

It strikes me there are three possible defenses of I Am Charlotte Simmons. The first we can dispense with quickly enough: It is not funny, therefore it is not a satire. The second is that it is a fair piece of reportage from the front lines. And yet Wolfe, whose eye for social distinctions is purported—by Wolfe, at least—to be so keen, gets so much so baldly wrong. “You would not believe how important sports are here!” Charlotte writes home to her parents. Wrong! Charlotte went to a rural high school, where sports stars are treated as demigods. Her parents would readily understand the mentality. Wolfe has Charlotte’s roommate, Beverly, a skeletal boarding school graduate and a four-alarm bitch, be conversant in pop culture, while Walton-mountain Charlotte is a near pop culture illiterate. Wrong! The principal medium of assimilation in America now is television, which is universal among the young. No one doesn’t plug in and master its basic argot—with one possible exception: the children of the very privileged, who get tucked away in Groton for four years, to develop some silly argot of their own. (I know: true confession—I’m married to a Charlotte Simmons and was sent to prep school.) Also, Wolfe has virtually zero comprehension of the mechanics of the reverse snobbery now so common in the ranks of the upper meritocracy, going so far as to claim Charlotte envies Beverly for being “wellborn,” a locution straight out of Thackeray.

OK, I’m reaching for the poleax again. I’ll set it aside and admit that once, while at UVA, a frat boy exiting Daddy’s sports car turned to me and said, “What are you looking at,” whereupon I promptly shrank into my cardigan. I sympathize with a certain horror, and a certain fascination, for the culture of machismo, and increasingly machisma, among the young. But what struck me about this ‘roided up book, so imposingly large without being dense or powerful, was how complicit in this culture Wolfe makes himself. I was reminded of a passage in Balzac, one of the social realists Wolfe makes such a great show of admiring, where he describes a certain Celestin Crevel. Crevel suffers from “retrospective envy,” Balzac tells us and then adds: “No one knows how much obvious bad taste this retrospective envy accounts for; and we cannot tell how many wildly foolish actions are due to the secret rivalries that drive men to mirror the type that they have set up as an ideal, to consume their energies in making themselves a moonshine reflection of someone else.”

Now, we know exactly how Balzac feels about this silly Crevel, whose weak personality has been left to forever wriggle upon his nail. You will say: But Wolfe is a modern novelist, whose own attitude can’t be so plainly injected into the narrative. But Wolfe everywhere injects himself into his narrative. When weakling Adam demands that Charlotte snap out of her depression, she “abruptly stopped crying and stared up at Adam with her mouth slightly open and her tearful eyes shining … with respect bordering oddly on pleasure, as women sometimes do when a man claims the high ground and rebukes them.” Later, in a similar situation: “[T]here was also, unbeknownst to either of them consciously, a woman’s thrill!—that’s the word for it!—her delicious thrill!—when … a man expands his chest and drapes it with the sash of righteousness and … takescommand … upon the Heights of Abraham.” Here, Heffster, I think we can start to make sense of all the abs, pecs, delts, lats. For everywhere in this book, Wolfe combines his powerful distaste for the decadence he has encountered, with an enormous respect for the animal quest for sexual dominance, which he believes is the transcendental fact of human existence. This is why the book is so strangely incoherent, while being so strangely compelling: Wolfe has found among the young habits he finds genuinely repulsive, but they are attached to an honest, almost Nietzschean, acknowledgment of the inner workings of status. Wolfe may be appalled by booze, crunking, and bling bling, but he has an awed (and entirely sexist and entirely homoerotic) respect for the animal powers of young men.

Heffster—in my big, gay heart, I know Wolfe cannot prevail in his quest for the laurel, against Bellow, Roth, Updike. Tomorrow I will unveil my pet theory! In the meantime: You think he will?? I can’t wait to hear you spin this one!