Wolfe howls at loose moon units of the Left
After thoroughly enjoying Tom Wolfe’s latest novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, it came as some surprise to read review after review that panned the book. Wolfe has had negative critiques of his earlier work, the smash hit Bonfire Of The Vanities and the more recent A Man In Full; during a celebrated literary bitchfight with a jealous Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving, Wolfe wrote an essay titled “My Three Stooges”.
But there was nothing like this near-universal condemnation by the literary establishment, so spiteful and so personal.
Wolfe “has become an old fart, and the worst kind of old fart, too: a right-wing scold, a moralising antique”, wrote Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Wolfe “has grown into an unremitting scold, excoriating perceived depravity”, wrote The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda. The book is, “a (slightly disguised) hellfire tirade, a vision of students who belong in the hands of an angry God”.
Wolfe is “irredeemably, programmatically super-ficial” wrote Theo Tait in the once-great magazine The Spectator.
Many reviewers sneered about Wolfe’s age, 73, as if it somehow disqualified him from writing about young people.
“What can be expected when a novelist in his 70s takes on the subject of undergraduate life? Mainly voyeurism,” wrote Princeton professor Elaine Showalter in the Chronicle Of Higher Education. Wolfe was “titillated by the sexual revolution that has arrived on campus since his own student days”. There must be a reason for such spite which goes beyond the pages of Wolfe’s new book. And, of course, it is politics. The day before the US presidential election last November, Wolfe was quoted in The Guardian as saying he might vote for George Bush. Social death!
What’s more, he poked fun at the Bush-hating New York liberal dinner party set, to which he belonged.
“Tina Brown wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media heavyweights were discussing …what they could do to stop Bush. Then a waiter announces he is from the suburbs, and will vote for Bush. And … Tina’s reaction is: ‘How can we persuade these people not to vote for Bush?’ I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in this election. I have never come across a candidate who is so reviled.”
Wolfe’s book is about a high-minded 18-year-old virgin, Charlotte Simmons, from a conservative hillbilly family, the first to go away to a prestigious college. But instead of an intellectual Shangri-la she found a shallow, status-obsessed world of rampant sex, crudity and drunkenness, where her virginity was a joke and being “cool” was everything.
It explores social status and the primal human need to belong to a group. How ironic, then, that the book was the trigger for Wolfe to become a pariah within his own group, the New York liberal elite.
“I cannot stand the lockstep among everyone in my particular world,” he told The Guardian. “They all do the same thing, without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them.”
Wolfe also accepted an invitation from Laura Bush to the White House last year to speak at a literary function.
But the final affront to his peers was when The New York Times discovered President Bush loved I Am Charlotte Simmons.
“It is unclear exactly what Mr Bush liked so much about the book,” wrote the newspaper’s Elizabeth Bumiller. Shock horror, the President was even, “enthusiastically recommending it to friends”.
“Does Mr Bush like the book because it is a journey back to his keg nights at Deke (his jock fraternity at Yale), or because it offers a glimpse into the world of his daughters’ generation?” Miaow.
Then, to make matters worse, another British paper, The Sunday Times, revealed Wolfe’s daughter, Alexandra, 24, had confessed that she, too, was intending to vote for Bush. “If I say it out loud, it’s death,” she whispered to writer Sarah Baxter at a Manhattan black tie arts party. “In a place like this, people look at you like you are a freak.
I believe in abortion and I totally believe Kerry is right on some social issues, but I just don’t trust him on terrorism.”
Maybe this determination to escape intellectual lockstep and think for oneself is hereditary. Or, scary thought, for Wolfe’s detractors, maybe it is contagious.