Peeping Tom

Review of I am Charlotte Simmons. Jacob Weisberg, New York Times, November 28, 2004.

It’s hard to imagine a tougher assignment for an aging journalist than explaining undergraduate life at a big American university. The project is not hard in the ways Tom Wolfe’s other subjects have been hard. It’s not technical, like space flight, or scary, like the Black Panthers, or closed to outsiders, like the inside of a Wall Street investment bank. But the seemingly accessible world of college students is more difficult to explicate because of the way the nuances of youth culture turn invisible, if not utterly incomprehensible, across the barrier of generations.

In his new novel, Wolfe approaches this difficulty by devising a character who is as much a Martian on campus as, say, a 74-year-old dandy in an ice-cream suit. Charlotte Simmons arrives at Duke, I mean Dupont University, from a God-fearing hamlet nestled so remotely in the Blue Ridge Mountains that she hems her own dresses, is flabbergasted by the $3.99 cover price of Cosmopolitan and is actually impressed by her first sight of a hotel atrium. Despite her brilliance in French literature, Roman history and all other academic subjects, Charlotte is not shocked, shocked but really and truly shocked by what she finds. Not all of the undergraduates at Dupont, our innocent country gal discovers, have come to partake of the life of the mind. As she would twang it, they’re goin’ to these fraternity parties and gettin’ der-unk. They’re walkin’ around in these re-vealin’ clothes. They’re usin’ pro-fanity. And — oh my God! — They’re havin’ say-yex!…

New York Times