Tom Wolfe, the great chronicler of post-World War II American life — with its surfers and rocket ships and race car drivers — is back with his first novel in six years, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Unfortunately, that Wolfe of the vivacious verbiage is no longer around. Posterity has snatched much of the snap from the looping, whirling, swirling bouts of prose that once made the publication of a Tom Wolfe book a singular literary event.
In “Simmons,” Wolfe takes on the comfortable life of the American undergraduate in the first years of the new millennium. (Wolfe visited the University while conducting his research). The story follows the first six months of the intrepid Charlotte Simmons, an academic dynamo from the small mountain hamlet of Sparta, N.C., at the prestigious Dupont University. Wolfe’s reserved heroine quickly finds herself swimming in a sea of alcohol, sex and drugs populated with rakish frat boys and basketball-playing nimrods. Even the self-styled intellectuals who abstain from the worst excesses of Dupont are boors who monomaniacally covet a Rhodes scholarship or a plum job with a consulting firm. Wolfe intersperses his sociological observations with a skeletal plot that involves the political aspirations of the governor of California, sexual improprieties, power and greed all revolving around the slight heroine.
“Simmons,” with its web of interlocking characters, infatuation with the importance of social class and intricate plot, is highly evocative of Charles Dickens. However, unlike his idol’s best work, Wolfe is unable to devise a satisfactory mechanism to wrap up the novel’s expansive threads. In many ways, “Simmons” is much closer to Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” A young girl from the country travels to a sinful world in an expos