Novelist Wolfe takes on hedonistic college life

Monday, November 22, 2004

NEW YORK -- Dapper Tom Wolfe likes everything just so.

He has perfected the art of being a gentleman, wearing a pressed white suit, of course, with a light blue shirt that matches his eyes and white two-tone shoes. He looks impeccable with his perfectly coifed silver hair, white polka-dot socks and tie, and white handkerchief. Even his spectacles match.

Wolfe has fashioned his career on this meticulous attention to detail and spends years researching every piece he writes, be it fiction or fact.

His new novel, "I am Charlotte Simmons," is about hedonistic college life and is no exception. With the aid of his children, 24-year-old Alexandra and 19-year-old Tommy, he carefully studied campus life and language. As a result, he can spill slang like, well, a totally awesome cool kid.

"People don't go around saying 'Jesus Christ' as an oath. They don't say 'jeez,' either," he says, sitting on a beige sofa at his suite in New York's stately Stanhope Hotel. "'Oh what a jerk' has been replaced by ... [expletive]. You can use my term for it: 'a quaint anatomical metaphor."'

It's a bit odd to hear Wolfe rattle off slang and obscenities, but stranger still is picturing the 74-year-old author in necktie and navy blazer leaning against the wall of a beer-sloshed fraternity house on a Saturday night.

"I think I was old enough. They thought it was very unlikely I was a drug enforcement agent," he said with a laugh. "If they were not too uncomfortable with me being there, pretty soon I'd see things that I wanted, like these secret rooms where the drinks were served."

Two years in class

Wolfe spent about two years attending classes and observing life at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Harvard University and Yale University to gather information to set his scene at the fictional Dupont University. He has been criticized for writing about such a common topic, since he's better known for bringing the bizarre and wild to light.

It was in the 1960s when Wolfe made his name in the vanguard of so-called New Journalism, combining fiction-writing styles with his keen reporter's eye for details. The technique served him well for "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," his look at Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and "The Right Stuff," his study of the space program. "The Bonfire of the Vanities," Wolfe's satire of status-hungry New Yorkers in the 1980s, was a top 10 best seller of the decade.

Wolfe said the idea of a college novel interested him because it's never been explored from the student's point of view, and because college has replaced the church as a moral touchstone.

These ideas came out muddled, as though he wasn't quite sure why he wrote the book. He spoke of college as being a breeding ground for political-correctness, but it can sometimes be a thin veil for the hedonism that goes on at schools.

Wolfe is no stranger to campus life. The Richmond, Va., native is the grandson of a Confederate rifleman -- his family's Virginia ties, on the paternal side, date back to 1710. He attended Washington and Lee University before earning a doctorate in American studies at Yale. He was even in a fraternity.

"The drinking is neither more nor less now. There is the addition of cocaine, a little bit of ecstasy, but I wouldn't say these things really play any major part on campuses," he says.

The heroine of the new, 675-page novel is 18-year-old Charlotte Simmons, the pertinacious prodigy of a tiny mountain town in North Carolina who gets a full ride to the venerable Dupont. Charlotte is unbelievably naive, and the novel chronicles her education to the world of college. Once rigid and "moral" in a traditional sense, she matriculates to the world of sex, drinking and materialism as she deals with a frat guy, a jock and a caustic, emaciated roommate.

Wolfe is easily one of publisher Farrar, Strauss and Giroux's most read writers. Due in stores Nov. 9, 1.5 million copies were printed. His last novel, "A Man In Full," sold 1.2 million copies in hardcover.

"Tom's work creates discussion in the literary world, but more important in the world of readers," said Jeff Seroy, senior vice president of marketing at the publishing house.

Fellow writer Gay Talese, whom Wolfe credits for starting New Journalism, said his work is important to both fiction and nonfiction because he is not afraid to take risks.

"I can tell you he is a very contrarian observer and a courageous writer and that is why he is read," Talese said. "He wasn't political in terms of offending people; whether he wrote about the Black Panthers, or the editor of the New Yorker. If there was a subject that today would be politically incorrect to write about, Wolfe would write about them."

Talese hasn't read "Charlotte Simmons" yet. So far, critics have not been kind and the book has debuted to mostly negative reviews. A Los Angeles Times review said, "His characters are burdened, often to the point of capsizing, by his stereotypes." The New York Times echoed a similar theme, and said, "He gives us some tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life."

But talk about Wolfe's novels only sells more books, said Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. She said his works sell well because he is a lively and spirited social critic.

"Every book he has is an event," Hensley said. "People love to love him, and love to hate him. Many people will read it just to go around saying how much they hated the new Tom Wolfe book."

Wolfe doesn't take the criticism to heart. Or, at least he tries not to. "You're supposed to say you don't read reviews, but I do," he says. "I hate bad reviews, I love good reviews, but I've had so may of both I can't complain."

His obsession with how to define and keep status is a theme in the new novel, much as it is in "Bonfire" and 1998's "A Man in Full." Dupont students clamber to get ahead within their cliques. Wolfe readily acknowledges that status is important to him.

"I don't think anyone is immune to that. It doesn't mean you're maniacal about moving up, like I am," he quips. "Preserving the status that you have is really important."

It's easy to be lulled by Wolfe and his smooth, slight Southern drawl. Friends say his dress and persona are the real thing. But don't be fooled: It is a red herring. This author is a Cheshire cat. He is ruthless and has an opinionated, caustic tongue, known for trashing contemporaries John Updike and Norman Mailer for being too self-indulgent. He wrote scathing articles about The New Yorker years ago and editors and the magazine would not comment on him for this story.

"Fiction is dying," Wolfe says. "There's just not the kind of work being done that should. I can enjoy Herman Hesse and (Franz) Kafka, they are writers of fables. But I don't consider that to be the optimal form of writing."

Wolfe thinks the novel has been anemic since the early 1900s and the days of John Steinbeck and "Lost Generation" writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, writers he admires.

"They are really hungry to tell you as much of America as they can, if they're cynical about it," Wolfe says.

He's not certain what his next project will be and is tossing around the idea of nonfiction again as he gets more reflective on his career.

"All of us writers start out thinking 95 percent of this is talent, a gift we have," he says. "I now think it's 65 percent material and 35 percent talent."

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