Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe


Rating: (Recommended)




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Tom Wolfe uses 688 pages in his new book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, to chronicle a freshman’s first six months at a college campus. Charlotte arrives on campus from a rural Southern town, and faces a barrage of new experiences. Throughout it all, she both reminds herself of who she is, as the title reinforces, and becomes transformed by these new experiences. No editor dared pare the two or three hundred surplus pages from this book: Wolfe went on as he willed, not always with success. I kept reminding myself as I read that this author in his 70s seemed to be doing a pretty good job of describing college life, as if I would really know. The patois, both of the basketball players and the students in general provided great amusement.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 17, “The Conscious Little Rock,” pp. 334-342:


Charlotte stood alone in the cavernous entry gallery of the Saint Ray house, waiting. Over there was the staircase with its massive, majestically carved and curved railing. The lumpy coats of paint made this triumph of American woodworking seem even shabbier tonight than it had in the dim light of the frat party.

The odd-looking guy who had let her in—his ferocious pair of eyebrows had grown together above his nose, and his hips were wider than his shoul­ders —had gone off to fetch Hoyt. The guy’s uncool, un—Saint Ray appear­ance triggered a vaguely unpleasant recollection she couldn’t pin down. So did the odor of the place—full-bodied, putrid, with a thin sweetness running ~ through it, like a wooden floor rotting because of leaking radiators. It had in fact been marinating for many years in spilled beer.

A mere transient sensation. Mainly she was feeling guilty about the way she had treated Adam. . . and awed by the prospect of seeing Hoyt.. . Why hadn’t she told him the truth about the jeans? Maybe because she didn’t even want herself to know what she had done this morning. . . gone to Eli-son, the high-end clothing store, and bought a pair of Diesels: Eighty dol­lars!—and she’d had only $320 left for the entire semester. Now she was down to less than half of her entire allowance—all so she could go “thank” Hoyt Thorpe! Why hadn’t she at least given Adam a decent kiss on the lips, a mercy kiss—the way Beverly bestowed her mercy fucks, or so she claimed— instead of that pathetic little vesper-service peck on the cheek? Why hadn’t she let him come inside to meet Hoyt? Hoyt! —a grown man, not a boy! She kept trying to figure out what it meant—beat up the governor of California’s bodyguards when they attacked him—what had Beverly called it—the night of the. . . some kind of fuck? . . . and then utter bewilderment. The gover­nor of California . . . She could see his florid face and thick white hair as she watched him on television last spring—the Dupont commencement ad­dress. . . which had given her strength, renewed her courage after Channing’s raid on her house after commencement. . . out in the Grove, did Adam say? Adam

Worse guilt. Now she knew exactly why she wouldn’t let Adam come in. Hoyt would see her in the company of a dork—Adam! —who was merely try­ing to bring her into what she had dreamed of, a cénacle, as Balzac had called it, a circle of intellects equipped and ready to live the life of the mind to the fullest. . . and here she was in the . . . First Circle of Hell, the entry gallery of the Saint Ray house.

Somewhere beyond the entry gallery, frat-boy voices exploded with laughs and mock cheers and then calmed down. Evidently some sort of game was in progress. Somewhere else, perhaps upstairs, somebody was playing a rap song with a snare-brush drumbeat and a saxophone in the background.

Hoyt appeared. He came toward her, limping. He had a bandage plas­tered down one side of his jaw almost to his chin. His eye on that side was black and puffy. There were stitches above the eye that closed what must have been a gash. His nose and his lower lip were swollen.

As he limped closer, he appeared quizzical, as if he had no idea who she was. But when he reached her, he smiled and said, “I must look great,” and started a laugh abruptly halting it with a wince that squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he was smiling warmly and blinking, and tears showed up in the corners of his eyes. He pointed to the side of his rib cage. “Sorta fucked up.”

So moved was she by the dreadful wounds, the awful beating he had taken for her sake, that she barely noticed the incidental bit of Fuck Patois.

He cocked his head, looked into her eyes with the smile of one who has lived. . . and said, “So you’re.. . Charlotte. At least I know your name now. If you wanna know the truth, I never thought I’d see you back in this house again.”

“Me neither.” Her voice was hoarse all of a sudden.

“I never even got to ask you why you ran away.”

Charlotte could feel her face turning red. “I didn’t. I—they pulled me.” She almost swallowed the words, she felt so ashamed.

Hoyt started to laugh, then winced with pain again. “Don’t make me do that,” he said. “It didn’t look to me like anybody was pulling you. By the time you got to that door, you were practically knocking the door down. You were sprinting, is what you were doing.” Confident smile: “Like what did you think I was?”

It dawned on her that he wasn’t talking about the tailgate but the night of “We’ve got this room.” She had no idea what to say. Her face was ablaze with embarrassment.

Hoyt delivered a philosophical-sounding sigh. “H’it don’ matter none. That was then.”

H’it don’ matter none? Was he mocking her accent? She didn’t know what to say to that, either. So she just blurted out, “I came to thank you. I’m so sorry about what happened to you. I feel like it was my fault.” She lifted her hand as if to raise it and caress the battered side of his face, but then she withdrew it. The sight touched her all over again. He had gone through all that for her. “I wasn’t even there when it was over. I feel so bad about that, too. I just had to come. . . thank you.”

“It wasn’t—” He abandoned that sentence and paused—for an eternity, it seemed to her. Finally: “You don’t have to thank me. I did it because I wanted to. I wanted to kill that asshole.”

“I hope somebody told you I called yesterday? All they said was that you couldn’t come to the phone. They didn’t tell me about. . . any of this.”

“Well, it could’ve been worse. I twisted my knee, but it’s not too bad.”

“I’m so sorry. I really am. Arid I’m so grateful.”

“Hey!” said Hoyt. His face brightened. “Come meet a couple of the guys.”

Another yawp of laughter, convulsive this time, and mock-cheering. Charlotte looked up at Hoyt quizzically.

“That’s just a bunch of guys playing Beirut.”


With great relish he described the game and the Pantagruelian beer-drinking it involved. “We can go watch if you want to, but first come meet a few guys.”

Limping, Hoyt led her toward a room that opened off the entry gallery. As they neared it, she could see flares of TV colors within, followed by a col­lective groan and some guy saying, “Ho-lee shit! Mo-ther-fucker-er!” As they reached the doorway, Hoyt put an arm around her shoulder. Charlotte con­sidered that a bit forward, but she was immediately distracted by the sight of six, eight—how many?—guys sprawled on the leather furniture, their faces blanched by a flare of white from a football jersey that filled the screen of a TV set on the wall.

“Gentlemen!” said Hoyt in an arch way, as if to admonish them to clean up their language, “I want you to say hello to, uh, uhh, uhhh, my friend”— he gave her a quick glance, as if to remind himself who she was—”uh, Charlotte.”

Ironic applause and attaboys. They were all staring at her with big grins on their faces. Charlotte knew she must have looked bewildered, because a guy in khakis and a white T-shirt that showed off his muscles said to her in a kind way, “We’re laughing at Hoyt. He has trouble remembering names.” More laughter.

“Come on, you guys,” said Hoyt. “Charlotte doesn’t want to see a bunch of assholes give a brother shit.”

Groans and laughter.

Charlotte felt Hoyt give her shoulders a squeeze. It all came back. . . his constant touching that night, but she had too many conflicting emotions to make an issue of it. She also felt she was at the center of a stage.

“Just pretend they’re gentlemen,” said Hoyt. “Charlotte, this is Vance.”

“Hi,” said a slim, handsome guy with an open, friendly face and tousled blond hair, sitting on the arm of a fat leather-upholstered easy chair, his arms around his knees.

“I think we met,” said Charlotte. Her voice seemed so tiny. Oh, she wasn’t likely to forget his face. He was the one Hoyt had chased off that night because We’ve got this room.

“Oh, yeahhh,” said Vance, obviously not remembering at all.

“And this is Julian. . .“ Hoyt took his arm off Charlotte’s shoulders—to her considerable relief. . . she didn’t want to be presented to this room full of boys as his—and introduced her to them all, one by one. In fact, they did prove to be gentlemanly. . . hospitable, friendly.. . lots of welcoming smiles. Vance insisted that she have his easy chair, and Hoyt eased himself into the chair next to it.

Charlotte couldn’t imagine what she could possibly talk to any of them about, but it was a moot point, as it turned out. Everybody returned to watch­ing the screen. The flaring light lit up everybody’s face in colors. On the screen . . . a seemingly interminable series of collisions . . . smacks, clatters, thuds, oooofs . . . of football players tackling one another, ramming each other headfirst, colliding torso to torso in midair. Charlotte’s pulse was rapid, but it had nothing to do with the TV screen. She was excited. . . the only girl in a room in a fraternity house with a whole bunch of cool boys. What did she look like to them? Terribly young and immature? They were all up­perclassmen. Hoyt and Vance and Julian seemed a generation older than she was. Sunk this far down into an easy chair, she became terribly conscious of how tight her jeans were on her thighs. Her legs—were they really as great as she thought they were? Without moving her head, she glanced about to see if any of them were drawn irresistibly. . . to taking a look. To her dis­appointment, none seemed to be, not even Hoyt, who seemed to be watch­ing TV and not watching it. He looked as if he had an appointment somewhere else.

On the TV a voice said, “Wait a minute, Jack, you’re not saying teams are instructing players to go out there and wreck the other guys’ knees—”

The roly-poly boy called Boo said, “You ever see those old-timers’ intro­ductions before the Fiesta Bowl? Guys look like they got two-by-fours for legs.” He hopped off the arm of the couch and did a rocking, stiff-legged walk across the floor. “Fucking look like they just got a five-hour furlough from the rheumatoid arthritis ward.”

Much laughter. Even Hoyt smiled, Charlotte noticed out of the corner of her eye. But how could they find it funny? To Charlotte, what she had just seen was sickening. It filled her with alarm and pity. What was it about boys? These boys were rich, rich enough to pay dues, on top of everything else, just to belong to a fraternity. They were smart. They had to be, just to get into Dupont at all. But they were no different from the boys at Alleghany High. She glanced at Hoyt—and Channing popped into her head. They were all crazed on the subject of manliness, and manly violence was the manliest thing of all. Seeing an athlete being crippled—it didn’t drown them in pity, not for a moment. It intrigued them. They identified not with the victim but the assailant. Being here frightened her—and thrilled her. She was no longer on the outside desperately denying that she wanted to be inside. I’m Mr. Starling’s rock, she thought to herself, and I only think I have free will.

She felt three pats on her knee. Without looking, she knew it was Hoyt— three times? She tried to translate that as affection. Touching her again.

Now everybody’s eyes swung to the doorway. A beaming couple was peering in—a very tall, rawboned guy with a high forehead—Harrison! —and a much shorter blond girl, the cute sort, in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt.

“It’s the hairy man!” said Boo. “And the Janester!”

“Hi-i,” said the girl, the Janester presumably, with an up tone and a down tone. She obviously knew them all.

Harrison was so tall that when he put his arm across the girl’s shoulder, it came down at an angle.

“Hoyt,” said the girl, “what happened to your head?”

Hoyt, without a smile: “Comes from banging it on the floor every time you hear the same question.” He still didn’t smile.

Recovering from a paroxysm of laughter, Boo said, “How bummed out is Hoyt, Jane?”

While Jane was saying something to Julian, Boo began singing a ditty under his breath: “CDs are a-coming, their tails are in sight. . .” He imme­diately looked to Hoyt for his reaction. Hoyt just looked back at him.

For the first time, Harrison noticed Charlotte. “Yo! Hey, uh. . . uh. . .”

Charlotte,” said Hoyt. He still wasn’t smiling.

“Have you noticed?” said Boo. “Hoyt has a way with names.”

“Everybody knows that,” said Harrison. To Charlotte: “Wuzz good?”

“I just wanted to thank Hoyt.” She sounded so tiny and weak to herself.

“Thank Hoyt?” said Harrison, genuinely puzzled. Then he seemed to get it. “Oh yeah. .

Everybody was looking at the screen again.

Harrison said to Hoyt, “Hey, Dawg, I’d love to stay and shoot the shit and all, but we gotta bounce.” He looked at Charlotte. “Nice to see you, uh, uh—”

Charlotte,” said Hoyt.

“Right, good going,” said Harrison. “Later.” Harrison and his little friend began climbing the shabby grand stairs.

Charlotte felt a tap on the outside of her leg, just above the knee. Touching her—

Alarmed, thrilled with alarm, she turned. Hoyt had withdrawn his hand but was still leaning toward her. He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t have his cool, ironic gleam in his eye. If anything, he looked tired. He motioned toward the doorway with his head and stood up. So she stood up, too, and they headed out of the room. No one seemed to notice except Vance, who said to Hoyt, “Real nice, Clark.”

Hoyt said, “You need to hit manual reset, Vance.”

“Rock on, Clark.”

Once they were back in the entry gallery, Charlotte said, “Why does he call you Clark? He said, ‘Real nice, Clark.”

“It’s from some movie.” Then he shrugged phlegmatically. “How about if I show you a little of the house without hundreds of people dancing and boozing all over it?”

Thrilling alarm! She felt as if her nervous system were doing millions of computations per second. Finally: “I have to get back. I just wanted to come by and thank you.”

Hoyt looked at her blankly for a moment, then began slowly nodding okay. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

It was a relief, and yet. . . he hadn’t even asked twice! What was wrong? The way she looked? Something she said—or all the things she hadn’t said, hadn’t been mature enough to know how to say—after he had introduced her to all his friends?

Hoyt insisted on driving her back, and she said no, he really shouldn’t, considering how he must be feeling, but he insisted, which pleased her.

Once they were outside, he took her hand as they walked toward his car, but he did it gently. Their conversation was one that any two students meet­ing for the first time might have had. He asked her how she happened to come to Dupont. Charlotte took great pleasure in describing Sparta, how small it was, how far up in the mountains it was, what hard times it was go­ing through, all of which lit her up with a certain amount of underdog’s glory, she thought. Just an ordinary college conversation. . . made electric by the fact that their fingers were intertwined. She asked him the same question, and it was just as she suspected from the confident way he carried himself. . . a fancy suburb of New York. . . his father the international investment banker, the private schools he went to. . . Charlotte became al­most giddy with the realization that she was walking along in the ancient, romantic grandeur of Ladding Walk with a sort of young man she had never known before, a wealthy, preppy, sophisticated young man who was a man through and through, a man willing to risk his life—that was what it had amounted to—for her, for a girl he barely knew!

Hoyt’s car turned out to be a huge SUV—tan?—gray?—she couldn’t tell in the dark—old and rather the worse for wear. On the side it said “Sub­urban.” To Charlotte it seemed somehow just right, even glamorous in an inverted way, that he would drive this. . . well. . . sort of bohemian old truck as opposed to something new and flashy—and ohmygod, he squeezed her hand.. . not for a second but five seconds, ten seconds before he released in order to get into the SUV.

“Oh—no, Hoyt.. . I can get back by myself all right.” This was the first time she had ever spoken to him by name! There was something profound about it, and thrilling.

He had squeezed her hand— “No, it’s cool,” said Hoyt. He smiled.

“I really shouldn’t let you do this, Hoyt.” Was using his name again go­ing too far?—and he had squeezed her hand— As they drove to Little Yard, neither spoke.

Charlotte’s mind began churning. Was he going to drop her off on the sidewalk by the gateway or was he going into the parking lot? And if they stopped in the parking lot, was he going to suggest going in with her. . . or would he look at her with a look that makes the same suggestion without words. . . and if he did, what would she say? Or would he park in the park­ing lot and turn the engine off and, without a word, put his right arm around her shoulders, gently, look into her eyes—and what would she do if he did?

Hoyt drove straight to the main gateway. . . and he put an end to that dilemma: he never turned the motor off. He looked at her with the sort of warm, loving smile that says. . . everything. . . and said to her, “Okay?”

Okay? The loving smile remained, radiant, upon his lips. It meant— meant—meant in one second I’m going to slide my arm across your shoulders and kiss you before you leave...

Charlotte looked more deeply into his eyes than she had ever looked into any guy’s. Her lips were slightly parted, and it was an eternity of her making before she finally said, “Oh yes, this is fine. This is perfect.” But she didn’t budge. She just kept looking at him, and part of her realized she was forcing. . . the issue. . . but how could it end with her just getting out and pushing the door shut. Then she heard herself saying, “Hoyt” —called him by his name again! —“I just want you to know. . . I really mean it. That was the bravest thing I ever saw anybody do. You were so wonderful, and I’m so grateful .“

With that, the conscious little rock moved her head ever so slightly closer to his and ever so slightly parted her lips. To Charlotte the moment was pregnant to the point of bursting. But Hoyt’s arm didn’t move, and his head didn’t move. Neither did his smile, which was so warm, warm, warm, loving, loving, loving, so warm and loving and commanding, all command­ing, she couldn’t move.

“Come on, now,” said Hoyt. “I wasn’t being brave. You’re embarrassing me. I got in a stupid brawl, that’s all, but I’m glad it got you out of there. Lax boys are crazy. I guess you know that now.”

Her eyes still locked on his, Charlotte leaned forward and caressed the unbattered side of his face and put her lips upon his. He returned the kiss gently. . . and briefly.. . without trying to put his arm around her. They dis­engaged quickly.

Hoyt! Your smile! Brimming with love, isn’t it?

“Good night, Charlotte.”

Charlotte! Good night, Charlotte! The first time he had used her name. . . actively, with feeling.

She gazed into his eyes for just a second longer, then hurriedly opened the door and got out without saying a word and without looking back. With­out a word. . . without a look back. . . Somehow that was what the moment demanded. She had a vague, fleeting recollection of having seen it in a movie.

She floated through Mercer Gate and into the courtyard. The lights in the windows around the quadrangle seemed like the Chinese paper lanterns in a painting by Sargent. In all of Little Yard, only she would know about that painting by Sargent. As she floated across the quadrangle, she could see exactly where the picture had been positioned on the page, a right-hand page it was, although she couldn’t remember where she was when she saw it. Only she would know about that painting by Sargent. In all of Dupont College, only she was Charlotte Simmons!


Despite the heft and chapters that wander needlessly, or the distracting patois and gratuitous sex (which will cause the parents of college youths some trepidation), I Am Charlotte Simmons accomplishes what Wolfe does well: a broad sweep into a world that may be unfamiliar on page one, but becomes well known by the last page. Approach it as entertainment, and enjoy, unless you’re sending a daughter to college anytime soon.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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