Tom Wolfe: Schools for scandal

Election? What election? Tom Wolfe's new novel returns to college to find a campus generation devoted to sex and sport. John Freeman meets him in Manhattan
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The Independent Culture

Sitting cross-legged on a gold couch in the library of his Upper East Side apartment, wearing the trademark white suit, navy tie and two-tone spats, Tom Wolfe is about as far from a college keg party as one can be in the US. On the table before him stands a statuette of Chairman Mao. The walls support shelf after shelf of books on Flemish masters and modern painters, and portraits of Wolfe's daughter in full equestrian gear. Shortly after the writer makes his entrance, a smiling housekeeper follows with two glasses of water. Over the next 90 minutes, here in the city Wolfe painted as a concrete jungle in his 1987 blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities, the surface of these decanters remains calm, still and unbroken.

Sitting cross-legged on a gold couch in the library of his Upper East Side apartment, wearing the trademark white suit, navy tie and two-tone spats, Tom Wolfe is about as far from a college keg party as one can be in the US. On the table before him stands a statuette of Chairman Mao. The walls support shelf after shelf of books on Flemish masters and modern painters, and portraits of Wolfe's daughter in full equestrian gear. Shortly after the writer makes his entrance, a smiling housekeeper follows with two glasses of water. Over the next 90 minutes, here in the city Wolfe painted as a concrete jungle in his 1987 blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities, the surface of these decanters remains calm, still and unbroken.

Visit Wolfe and it becomes easy to understand why life on American university campuses was a distant reality for him. And a shocking one, too. Indeed, his 700-page new novel, I am Charlotte Simmons (Jonathan Cape, £20), reads like every father's worst nightmare. Set in fictional Dupont University, it reaches down into America's deep-fried soul and returns with an inflammatory portrait of the pornographic hollowness of that $120,000 investment known as college: all the drinking and partying, the cheating, screwing and athlete-worshipping. Even Wolfe, who has made millions by telling us what the madding crowd is doing, acknowledges that America's youth may have slipped a little. "I'm glad I didn't know this before my kids went off to college," he says with an uneasy chuckle.

It's an odd statement for America's pre-eminent clocker of the zeitgeist, especially given the most contentious election in the nation's history. If we needed a reminder of how, well, pre-September 11 such concerns over life on campus seem, we need only look out of the window. The view from Wolfe's library stretches downtown over Central Park, across Midtown, and all the way to the former site of the World Trade Centre.

I ask him whether, perhaps, the zeitgeist passed him by this time? "I did pause and say, you know, wait a minute," says Wolfe, with the languid cadence of a born Southerner. "This is supposedly changing everything. But look at New York today. Real estate is out of control... Besides, I found on campuses the reaction to 9/11 was zero. For most kids,it was just something that happened on TV."

Osama bin who? If you want to understand why even America's young and well-educated are out of the loop, I am Charlotte Simmons will show you why in a scary way. Using his trademark interior monologues, Wolfe shows that kids are ignorant because they have one thing on their mind: sex.

The heroine is a naive overachiever from rural North Carolina repulsed by the vulgarity of the social scene. Then there's the coterie of her suitors: JoJo Johansen, a 6ft 10in basketball star; Hoyt Thorpe, a formerly wealthy Wasp; and Adam Gellen, a nerdy tutor and campus reporter, wrapped up in a scandal.

Critics have already pointed out that Wolfe's decision to cast a female lead might be a response to those who carped that he could not make a woman come alive on the page. Wolfe disagrees. "I finally decided on Charlotte because her simple naivety is a good way to introduce the reader to this campus life that the reader doesn't know about, so every revelation to Charlotte Simmons is supposed to be a revelation to the reader. Also, from what I had seen, the changes in terms of sexuality are much harder on a woman than a man."

Tom Wolfe as a feminist? The action indeed reads like a dramatisation of the themes and observations in his essay, "Hooking Up," in which he noted that by the year 2000 "sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty". Within a day of arrival, Charlotte is "sexiled" when her room-mate brings a man home for sex; meanwhile, fraternity brothers engage in stop-watched contests to see how quickly they can bed "fresh meat". Seven minutes is the time to beat.

All this could be written off as melodrama were Wolfe not so thorough about his research. He visited more than a dozen college campuses over four years, spending weeks at Stanford, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina. He talked to students and attended classes and, just a few years after quintuple heart bypass surgery, stayed out until four or five in the morning, standing in the corner of fraternity house basements with ears pricked. No notepads. Although he never observed "sexual congress", as he puts it, Wolfe did see plenty of dirty dancing and became fluent in what he calls "the fuck patois" - in which the expletive is used as a noun, verb and adjective.

Even if he could talk the talk, it's hard to imagine Wolfe blending in with the crowd. But that's never been his strategy. Wolfe began wearing the white suit in 1962, and continued because the garb provided a helpful barrier between himself and his subjects. "It also made me a man from Mars," he says, a man "who didn't know anything and was eager to know. Incidentally, all during these trips to colleges I didn't wear the suit. I'd wear navy blazers, white flannels, shoes like this." Wolfe points at his two-tone shoes as if they magically appeared on his feet. "They had no idea who I was... they'd tend to look at me and think, well, he's too old to be Drug Enforcement Administration. So they figured I was harmless. People just can't stay wary so long."

A novel by Wolfe has become a kind of once-a-decade event in American publishing, greeted with a kind of polarised fanfare. If sales of Bonfire of the Vanities thrust Wolfe to the top of the heap of social novelists, A Man in Full gave his critics a thorn in their side. Reviewing it in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote that it was "entertainment, not literature". And the food fight over I am Charlotte Simmons has already begun. In The New York Sun, Adam Kirsch argued that Wolfe "has never been able to discover the deeper, stranger, more elusive truths that fiction can bring", but Charles McGrath in The New York Times responded with a love letter of a profile that compared Wolfe to other American masters who graduated from the newsroom to the novel: John O'Hara and Stephen Crane.

If Wolfe's response in print is to go after his critics - he once wrote an essay calling John Irving, Updike and Norman Mailer "The Three Stooges" - away from his keyboard, he takes the high road. While pictures tend to portray the man as a sneering aristocrat, in person he is strikingly soft-spoken, almost courtly. He repeats the expletives he uses so frequently in the book with a flinch and a wince. And yet the suit, the apartment, and his long shelf of books all attest to his ability to be a chameleon.

Wolfe has already begun a new essay: his response to the critics, perhaps. "I've begun working on a writer's Hippocratic oath," he says. "The first line of the doctor's Hippocratic oath is 'First, do no harm.' And I think for the writers it would be first, entertain. Entertain is a very simple word... Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly. And any, any writing - I don't care if its poetry or what - should first entertain. It's a very recent thing that there's a premium put on making writing so difficult that a charming aristocracy is the only group capable of understanding it."

Here we arrive at a sore point. Two weeks prior to Wolfe's publication, the National Book Award announced its finalists. Wolfe was not among them. To pour salt on the wound, Stewart O'Nan, one of the judges, went on record saying, "John Irving was right: the guy's not a novelist."

In a way, Wolfe might agree. He chooses a subject, heads out into the fields, performs his research, and then begins writing a story. He has also removed himself from the charming aristocracy by deciding to follow the zeitgeist, and in the past four decades America's zeitgeist has travelled further and further down-market. With I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe has travelled to what may be its nadir - and he's being a good sport about it, white suit and all. He also figures that, were some of his predecessors alive, he'd have good company: "I've always said that Edgar Allen Poe would be writing jingles for the radio if he were alive today."

Biography: Tom Wolfe

Born in 1930, Tom Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia and, after studying at Washington and Lee universities, gained a PhD from Yale in 1957. He began his career as a reporter in Massachusetts, and covered Cuba for The Washington Post. He later wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune and New York magazine, and published his articles about Sixties culture, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in 1965. Later books of social reportage include The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). He wrote about modern art in The Painted Word (1975) and the space programme in The Right Stuff (1979). His first novel, the bestselling The Bonfire of the Vanities, appeared in 1987. The equally successful A Man in Full followed in 1998, and this month Jonathan Cape publishes I am Charlotte Simmons in the UK. Tom Wolfe, who is married with a son and daughter, lives in Manhattan.

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