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A century or so ago, a good many young Americans reacted against spiritless factual scholarship by discovering and publicly embracing the likes of Yeats, Aubrey Beardsley, Rimbaud, Nietzsche and Wedekind. Their "rebellion" was braver than it might seem: evangelical auxiliaries monitored university courses at that time to discourage "unsuitable" philosophy and extravagances of every kind, other than hymnic patriotism.
Conversation in which there were expressed views other than those appearing in newspapers hardly ever occurred, and generally excluded profanity when it did. Something akin to puritanical fervour infected sport on campus. And although puritanism itself by then was in decay, American religion remained a thrilling wilderness in youth's psychological realm, defying generalisation and rare cynicism. Art was left mainly to women. Sexual instincts were not allowed to become seriously orgiastic and primitive.
Today things are very different. Tom Wolfe's new novel about modern life on an American campus begins with binge-drinking, alfresco sex, bestial violence and expletives galore - all of which we are to assume are commonplace in once-austere Ivy League fraternity houses, while college sport exudes the fragrance of organised crime. Two drunken students, Hoyt and Vance, take a nocturnal stroll through Dupont University's sycamore grove, where they come across a visiting state governor with his pants down, receiving a blow-job from a female student. The governor's bodyguard tries to assault the two youths, but succeeds only in smashing his fist against a tree. He cries out, "Muhfuggah, muhfuggah." His would-be victims cry out, "Fuck!" and "Holy shit!"
That is possibly one of the least appalling scenes "observed" and presented to us by the author, following four years of research. Before too long his depiction of life on campus resembles a warren of rabbits in copulative frenzy. Co-eds dally unclothed in corridors, drunkenly invade each other's bedrooms ("dormcest"). Female freshmen are "hit on" as "fresh meat". They don't seem to mind too much, for they shave their crotches and get "totally slutted up" for the encounters. If your room-mate turfs you out while she is being hit on, you are "sexiled" for the duration. "Sex! Sex! ... The whole campus was humid with it! tumid with it! lubricated with it! gorged with it! tingling with it! in a state of around-the-clock arousal with it! Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut -"
Into this place steps Charlotte Simmons, academically gifted, on a scholarship from her small, isolated home town in North Carolina. She is the loveliest of Dupont's fresh meat, but she is a virgin. Much of the story is about her efforts to remain so while just about everybody else is rutting, and larding every sentence with "fuck", "fucking" or "fucked" (Fuck patois, Wolfe calls it), and, if a sports jock, casually and blatantly cheating in exams.
Now, one may be observing this state of affairs through an old man's rheum. Tom Wolfe was 57 when his first bestselling novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published, and still in his sixties when he wrote his second, equally brilliant, A Man in Full. He is now 73, an age when many individuals may tend, even subconsciously, to exonerate the past by excoriating the present. Charlotte Simmons, one suspects, exhibits a sense of decorum and earnest endeavour which belong to the bygone era referred above - even a bit later, when the author was growing up in Virginia before going to Yale.
By placing Charlotte anachronistically in a Dupont "frat house" among sexually incontinent hedonists, most of whom are cursing, farting, elbowing, self-regarding cretins, he parodies her goodness as he parodies their grotesqueness. He is asking us to compare yesterday's more sheltered American youth with today's rampant variety, and to conclude that grace, etiquette and chastity cannot possibly survive in these, the opening years of the 21st century. We note such giveaway lines as "not that anybody at the [student paper] ... had ever heard of Front Page or its era, more than 70 years ago, back in the last century, which to college students today was prehistory."
So this novel is both an excoriation and a lament. It is a good read, cleverly constructed, but it invites a paraphrastic rendering of a song Bing Crosby crooned long before Tom Wolfe discovered white suits or a Bushite bent: "When you're worried and you can't sleep, just count transgressions instead of sheep..."
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