In a kind of Bonfire of the Vanities for the 21st century, Tom Wolfe has created the fictitious upper-crust Dupont University as the setting for his latest social critique. It's a perfect playground for his cast of self-absorbed idiots -- pompous professors, money-grubbing coaches, habitually drunk frat guys and painfully dorky brainiacs. As the proving ground for our future leaders, this peek inside college life should make you very afraid (and perhaps explain a lot). It's quite a naughty book, too -- even if the sex writing is among the most cringe-inducing you'll encounter. (Example: One student's hormones induce "visions of loamy loins dancing in his head.")
The story follows the genius Charlotte Simmons (from tiny, conservative Sparta, N.C.) as she experiences her first year at Dupont. She meets the basketball star Jojo Johanssen, who's losing his mojo; she's enthralled by the pseudo-intellectual gobble-de-gook of nerdy Adam Gellin; and she's seduced by the dashing rogue Hoyt Thorpe of Saint Ray's fraternity. Charlotte is both appalled by and attracted to this new world, but by Christmas she concludes that she has "committed moral suicide" in her fling with Hoyt.
Wolfe's characters are carefully drawn, but ultimately shallow stereotypes. But even more infuriating is that he never tips his own hand. Should we be horrified that our most sacred institutions seem engineered to pluck the spirit of a rare flower like Charlotte? Or is this simply the way we live now, and readers who are parents might as well know the truth?
In the end, Wolfe does unleash some hellfire, pinning the decadence on Hoyt Thorpe and his besotted ilk -- all with a revenge-of-the-nerds flourish. But as for Charlotte, while you might expect a kind of righteous rising from the ashes of her own despair, Wolfe doesn't find an inner feminist to channel. No, after his 600-plus-page indictment, Wolfe undercuts his own thesis by pulling his punches. Charlotte, he decides in a kind of Hallmark movie moment, is better off buying into the system, rotten as it is.
The book's saving grace, and what I'll remember about it is Wolfe's take on our culture of frivolity: On a campus stuffed with Nobel prize winners, willfully ignorant students (at St. Ray's, anyway) are content to hang out in the old fraternity library, now devoid of books, watching ESPN's SportsCenter on an endless loop.
Does entertainment trumping enlightenment sound like a value of any society you can think of?