Being Tom Wolfe means always having a hard act to follow - yourself. His first two novels, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and the even better "A Man in Full," are easily among the best American novels of the past 50 years.
If that didn't raise the bar enough, Wolfe guaranteed he would be held to a higher standard by challenging his peers to follow his example and quit writing insular, introspective novels that couldn't hold a candle to the three-ring circuses of drama that filled the daily newspapers and airwaves.
Exhorting writers to emulate Emile Zola, the great French novelist, Wolfe said writers needed to report on the world around them and find the meaning behind current cultural upheavals to be relevant.
While Wolfe is true to that aspiration with his new novel, "I am Charlotte Simmons," how successfully he executes his task is the open question.
First, there's no question that Wolfe can get more out of a social gathering than any of his contemporaries. Few readers can forget the first dinner party Sherman McCoy attends after becoming a public figure in "Bonfire of the Vanities" or the museum opening in "A Man in Full."
"I am Charlotte Simmons" has a good half-dozen set pieces that are in that league, which justify the price of the book and the time spent reading it.
In the novel, Wolfe explores the theme of casual and impersonal sex among young people largely through the eyes of a poor but brilliant religious girl from backwoods North Carolina who gets thrown into the sexual malestrom of aDupont University co-ed freshman dorm with no warning of what she is getting into.
Dupont is a fictional amalgam of today's archetypal universities; it's an Ivy League school with a national championship basketball team that's also a football power.
It's quite a brave new world for Charlotte, who grew up in a tarpaper shack and is attending on scholarship. Both her lack of spending money and the culure shock leave her isolated at first.
Charlotte's roommate, Beverly, is rich, flashy and promiscuous, and the dinner the two families share on move-in day means Beverly is looking down her nose at Charlotte from the start.
Three young men come into Charlotte's life, each representing an extreme of college life. Basketball star Jojo Johanson, the only white player on the team, is tired of being sent to "jock" classes and wants to get a real education, while voraciously promiscuous Hoyt Thorpe, president of Dupont's most popular fraternity, views Charlotte as a challenge to be conquered. Then there's geeky Adam Gellin, who writes for the campus newspaper and is desperately in love with her.
After weeks of loneliness and isolation, Charlotte finally makes some connections with other "losers" who are stuck in the common reading area after being "sexiled" from their rooms in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Charlotte's brilliance also gets noticed by professors and students alike.
But those new human connections are fraught with pitfalls in the cold, amoral atmosphere of student life at Dupont. To curry a little acceptance, Charlotte begins to forget her mother's admonition to declare "I am Charlotte Simmons" and take the stand she knows is right.
For the first half of the book, Wolfe succeeds brilliantly. The universal fear and loneliness of the first week freshman on any campus is effectively portrayed. While the depths of depravity seem hard to believe at times, Wolfe's reputation as an accurate reporter makes one take it seriously.
The book has many superb set pieces - Charlotte's father talks Beverly's blue-blood parents into dining at a feedbag called Sizzlin' Skillet and endlessly chatters about the huge portions, Charlotte's first visit to a co-ed bathroom, a party at Hoyt's fraternity, a disastrous frat formal Charlotte attends with Hoyt and Adam's coerced attendance at Stand Up Straight for Gay Day rally, to name a few.
However, "I am Charlotte Simmons" ultimately is a frustrating book. Wolfe has bit off more than he can chew in many ways. The book is both too narrow and too broad in its focus. Charlotte is a terrifically drawn character, but when she goes through her fall, her religious background is not a significant part of her thinking. Why not? We have no idea. Also, her misery goes on too long and brings the book's pace to an abrupt halt.
While the first two-thirds of the book deal adequately with the male characters, Jojo nearly disappears in the last third, save for a too cheery tacked-on coda. Such issues as race on campus are dealt with only in the context of basketball, which, while provocative in Wolfe's usually brutally honest form, seems inadequate.
Wolfe's point is that that media are missing the point on college campuses by spending too much time on political controversy - and even Political Correctness, though his contempt for it is obvious. Freshmen, he contends are more concerned with socialization that socialism.
Still, Wolfe is always worth reading and discussing. If "I am Charlotte Simmons" is the least of his novels, it's still leagues ahead of such university-set tripe as Jane Smiley's "Moo." This may not be the perfect novel, but it's brilliant in parts.